SAN ANTONIO--Tonight around 9 p.m. Eastern time, Marcus Paige is likely to find himself in a position that will be entirely new to him: he will be better-rested than the opposing point guard.
At 35.6 minutes per game, Paige is on pace to easily play the most minutes of any player in the Roy Williams era. But that probably sounds downright leisurely to Providence's Bryce Cotton, who averages 39.9 minutes per game and has played an incredible 96.3 percent of his team's minutes--the highest such ratio in America. That includes six games in which Cotton has played more than 40 minutes in a single game.
"That seems to be the theme," Friars coach Ed Cooley said Thursday in San Antonio. "Even during the season, everyone talks about our ironman. First and foremost, I still think he's the most undervalued kid in all of American college basketball. I think he's an elite-level guard. He's been playing 35 to 39 minutes a game since we've coached him. So I don't look at this as any different. He's a mentally tough young man. He knows how to pace himself to play a full game. We never think of taking him out of the basketball game, ever."
Cooley isn't exaggerating. In last weekend's run to the Big East tournament championship, Cotton played 114 of a possible 120 minutes, sitting out only to avoid some foul trouble in the quarterfinal game against St. John's. That's one of just two games in Providence's past eight when Cotton has sat out at all.
"I thought I played a lot of minutes until I started looking at his stats and seeing how many minutes he played this season," Paige said. "And he's still able to be effective the entire game despite playing that many minutes."
Despite the workload, don't expect either player to look winded. In NCAA tournament play, timeouts that normally last two minutes and 15 seconds during the regular season stretch to two minutes and 30 seconds. There are no more 30-second timeouts; the shorter timeouts in each half are 60 seconds instead of 30. And the first called timeout of each half--instead of just the second half--stretches to a full timeout. So each NCAA tournament game has 10 full timeouts instead of the standard nine, and each of the shorter timeouts (normally 30 seconds) is twice as long.
That means that barring foul trouble for either player, fans will be treated to almost a full 40 minutes of what could be one of the best one-on-one showdowns of the first round (sorry, NCAA, no matter what you want it to be called, it's still the first round).
Cotton is a first-team All-Big East pick and was the Most Outstanding Player at the Big East tournament. According to Ken Pomeroy's stats, Cotton uses 27.8 percent of Providence's possessions when he is on the court, meaning over a quarter of the times the Friars have the ball, it ends with Cotton making or missing a shot or committing a turnover.
Paige, of course, is a first-team All-ACC selection and one of six finalists for the Cousy Award. He's not as assertive as Cotton (according to those same stats, Paige uses 22 percent of UNC's possessions, which is only the fourth-highest ratio on his own team, behind James Michael McAdoo, Brice Johnson and Kennedy Meeks).
Still, his offensive is indispensable, and at 17.4 points per game, he's on pace to be the shortest leading scorer for Carolina since Larry Brown, among other achievements. He'll have to score for the Tar Heels to have a chance to advance. But Friday night will also bring him a big defensive challenge.
"(Cotton) is a great player on offense," Paige said. "He has a great pull-up jumpshot. He's really quick with the ball, and we're going to have to do a great job containing him on the ball screen."
Defending that ball screen has alternately been solid and troublesome this year, so the communication between Paige and the Carolina big men will be important. When it comes to the one-on-one matchup, however, Roy Williams believes the Iowa native is prepared.
"People don't give Marcus credit defensively," the head coach said. "He is really good. I would not be surprised if Marcus has not won our defensive player of the game award more than any point guard I've ever had (Paige has won it a team-high 10 times this year).
"He does have a load offensively. He does have a load handling the basketball. He does have a load with leadership. But he's really, really good defensively."
Adam Lucas is the editor of CAROLINA.