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The Providence Journal

Bryce Hopkins knows about upsets and he's hoping Providence basketball can pull one off

By Bill Koch, The Providence Journal,

  • Bryce Hopkins was on a Kentucky team that lost to NCAA Cinderella Saint Peter's last season
  • As a seldom-used bench player, he transferred to Providence
  • He is now one of the top forwards in the nation and will face his old team Friday night

PROVIDENCE — There was another side to Saint Peter’s Cinderella run through last year’s NCAA Tournament.

Bryce Hopkins knows it only too well. He was on the quiet trip back to Lexington as a freshman forward at Kentucky, his dreams of an extended March Madness stay shattered in a historic upset.

The Peacocks eventually reached the Elite Eight, and their starting point was an 85-79 overtime shocker in Indianapolis. Hopkins didn’t play in the game, watching the entire 45 minutes unfold as an unused substitute. It was a disappointing cap to what had already devolved into a frustrating 2021-22 season.

“It was devastating to watch,” Hopkins said on Tuesday. “We were a No. 2 seed and they were a No. 15 seed. The upset — you never want to get upset in the tournament. But you’ve got to be prepared to win. You’ve got to be prepared to play against anybody.

“It was tough to watch it. I couldn’t help my teammates.”

Last year's Kentucky Wildcats team stay in touch

The members of that team – some who graduated, some who entered the transfer portal like Hopkins, some who remain members of the Wildcats – still maintain a group chat via text message. That space started buzzing Sunday night when Providence was drawn against Kentucky in an East Region opener. The 11th-seeded Friars and sixth-seeded Wildcats will match up in a 7:10 p.m. tip in Greensboro, N.C.

“Every now and then we’ll say what’s up to each other and see how everybody’s doing, but we’re not active in it that much,” Hopkins said. “Once the seeding came up, we were all talking in it and excited for the matchup.”

Hopkins certainly won’t be doing much watching against his old friends. He’s transformed from a heralded recruit who logged just 184 minutes last season into a Karl Malone Award finalist — that goes to the nation’s premier power forward. Hopkins leads Providence with 16.1 points and 8.5 rebounds per game, numbers bolstered by 10 double-doubles.

"His emotions are going to be high as a kite," Providence coach Ed Cooley said. "He’ll probably have some anxiety. We’ll try to give him the ball early to see the ball go through the net."

Bryce Hopkins rarely got off the bench in Kentucky

Hopkins was a top-50 prospect who earned double-digit minutes in five of his first six games with Kentucky. But it’s not typically a program that allows much time or latitude to make an impression and Hopkins soon found himself on the rotation’s fringes. He didn’t get off the bench in six of his last 14 games, including an SEC Tournament loss to Tennessee and one of the most unlikely upsets in the sport’s history.

“I pretty much knew after we lost I was entering the transfer portal,” Hopkins said. “I knew Coach Cooley was one of my options. I was just trying to look into their playing style and see how they played.”

Hopkins wasn’t sure how many of his teammates watched the remainder of the event. He was among those tuned in to see the Friars reach their first Sweet 16 since 1997. Providence gave eventual champion Kansas everything it could handle before succumbing, 66-61, in Chicago.

“It was an amazing run they had last year,” Hopkins said. “I could see glimpses of them last year in how we do stuff now. It’s pretty much the same.”

The Friars were one of several high-major suitors for Hopkins both out of the prep ranks and on the transfer market. They secured his commitment the second time around and made him a starter from the outset. Hopkins played 36 minutes in the season opener against Rider and hasn’t looked back, adjusting to a new role in the frontcourt that has him more active in the paint.

“Losing in the tournament is not fun — it's not fun at all,” Cooley said. “I’m pretty sure there’s some motivation for them to advance in this tournament, and we’re going to have our hands full.

“We’re going to get the best Kentucky team people have seen all year.”

On Twitter: @BillKoch25

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