Wichita State guard Tekele Cotton played four minutes in the first half Wednesday against Southern Illinois and the Salukis scored 43 points, most by any opponent this season.
Not a coincidence.
Cotton, while not WSU’s only good defender, is a big part of how it establishes a physical, aggressive setting. When two fouls sent him to the bench, it showed.
“When he’s out, it affects our defense because he brings such a huge defensive presence,” center Ehimen Orukpe said. “Pressure on the ball. Steals.”
Cotton starts, instead of coming off the bench as he did before injuries sidelined Evan Wessel and Ron Baker. That changes the complexion of WSU’s bench. Junior transfer Nick Wiggins often replaces him and Wiggins, an accomplished scorer, isn’t as accomplished stopping scorers. Wiggins wasn’t responsible for all 43 points and other Shockers broke down, to be sure, against SIU’s small lineup and hot shooting. It all made Cotton’s absence more noticeable. WSU led 12-6 when he checked out for good and trailed 43-34 at halftime.
“It hurts,” WSU coach Gregg Marshall said. “When we take certain guys out and put others in, the defense lessens — the intensity, the toughness and (Wednesday) may be a good example. He played (four) minutes in the first half and they put up 43.”
Cotton, a 6-foot-3 sophomore, spent much of the first half crouched in front of the bench, watching as if the last seconds of an NCAA Tournament game passed by. He is not the type to sit idly.
“The only way I could help my team in that situation was to cheer from the bench,” he said.
Cotton is the rare player who doesn’t seem to care if he scores. His effort doesn’t go up and down, depending on how his jump shot is working.
“I just want to play my part,” he said. “I want to be as consistent as I can be.”
Coaches say “defense travels,” which means while it can be hard to score on the road, defense should always be an asset. WSU plays at Evansville on Sunday and Cotton will face Colt Ryan, one of the Valley’s top scorers. If defense does indeed travel, Cotton is the perfect guide on a road trip.
“A lot of players, they focus on offense and all that,” Orukpe said. “Him, he’s all about the team and that mindset puts him at an advantage to play defense.”
To the left — Senior center Carl Hall has been working on shooting with his left hand, by necessity, in an empty gym without defenders.
So in addition to rehab and rest, part of his therapy included doing something productive for his game. Hall, out since Dec. 20 with a broken right thumb, is trying to add to his offensive repertoire for his return later this month. Don’t expect Garrett Stutz, who scored regularly with his left hand around the basket, but Hall likes the progress.
“It’s kind of crazy, now that I have to use the left hand for everything,” he said. “I’m pretty confident in it now after using it for a few weeks.”
Wessel, who will miss the rest of the season because of his broken right pinky finger, has more time to work on his weak hand.
“You just try to work on your game,” he said. “I can improve my left hand while I’m hurt. It’s something I need to get better at.”
Break on through — A win at Evansville makes the Shockers 16-1, matching the 1953-54 team for the best one-loss record in the program’s Missouri Valley Conference history.
Coach Ralph Miller’s third team gave the Shockers their first bit of national recognition. They made their debut in the Associated Press poll at No. 11 in the Jan. 12, 1954 rankings. Their 8-2 MVC record was their first above .500 since going 6-4 in 1945-46, their first as a member.
The Shockers ended the season 27-4, after finishing behind Oklahoma State in the MVC, and played in the NIT, their first national tournament appearance as a Division I school.
Saint Louis handed the Shockers their second loss, 74-58, in St. Louis on Jan. 23.
Joiners — Some days it seems as if the Big East breakaway schools will form their new conference quickly. Other days, it seems years away.
What matters most to Missouri Valley Conference members is Creighton’s status. The Bluejays are consistently mentioned as a candidate, especially if the conference grows to 12 members. They could join seven former Big East schools and several from the Atlantic 10 to form a conference populated with private schools that don’t play big-time football.
The seven Big East schools have hired a legal firm and are looking at TV deals, according to SI.com. Creighton, meanwhile, is waiting. Athletic director Bruce Rasmussen told the Omaha World-Herald that no invitation has been extended.
Xavier, Butler, Dayton and Saint Louis are the other schools mentioned in reports as likely candidates to join seven Catholic schools from the Big East — Providence, DePaul, Georgetown, St. John’s, Seton Hall, Villanova and Marquette.
Worth noting — WSU’s First Pitch Banquet, with Kansas City Royals manager Ned Yost as speaker, is Jan. 28 at Koch Arena. Tickets are $40 and must be purchased by Jan. 25. For information call 316-978-3636.… WSU’s women’s tennis team opens the season Wednesday at Oral Roberts. The men’s team will play in the MVC individual championships beginning Friday in Des Moines.