SALT LAKE CITY — Tray Woodall was better known as Travon the last time he went up against Wichita State, in the 2009 CBE Classic inside Kansas City’s Sprint Center. He tore the Shockers up with 19 points, six rebounds, five assists and four steals as Pittsburgh swatted WSU 68-55.
Somewhere that night, Tekele Cotton was probably D-ing up somebody as a high school junior in Marietta, Ga., knowing defense was his ticket to a Division I basketball scholarship.
On Thursday afternoon in a second-round NCAA Tournament game, Tray Woodall – it’s Tray now – came face to face with Cotton. They battled. And when it was over, one was in tears.
And it wasn’t Cotton, Wichita State’s hard-nosed, hard-lipped, hard-handed, hard-everything sophomore guard who could probably get on an NFL field today and give Calvin Johnson something to think about coming over the middle.
Instead, Cotton’s job is to take on the opposing team’s best scorer — whether that be a point guard, shooting guard, small forward and even sometimes a power forward — and make that person’s life miserable.
Woodall, the best player in a Pitt uniform, was reduced to rubble by Cotton’s tenacity. The same guy who lit up the Shockers in Kansas City – only now more than three years older – was held to one basket. He took 12 shots. Woodall played 30 minutes and the biggest number he produced was five turnovers.
Get this: The 6-foot-2 Cotton — who teammate Malcolm Armstead called a free safety in a basketball uniform — guarded Woodall as if he was carrying a gold shipment to Provo and didn’t foul him. Not once.
Cotton’s effort in a surprisingly-easy 73-55 Wichita State win was almost spiritual. He made dirty work look clean.
And you want to know what he had to say about it afterward? Very little.
Getting Cotton to talk is an all-day quest. When told he was a man of few words, Cotton laughed. But he didn’t say anything.
“Oh, there’s another Tekele that you all will never know,’’ freshman teammate Fred VanVleet said.
Cotton might not be comfortable with a bunch of microphones and tape recorders in his face, but he’s in his element when he’s in the face of an offensive player.
Woodall had hit double figures in 11 straight games before meeting Mr. Cotton. Let’s just say he’s probably going to change his attire to polyester.
As the questions piled up after the game, Woodall became emotional. Understandable since this was his last game at Pitt. But the nightmares of Cotton are likely to linger.
“You give (Cotton) credit,’’ Pittsburgh coach Jamie Dixon said. “Tray missed three layups there in a row at one point…. ”
Wait a minute. Three layups in a row? That’s not accurate, Mr. Dixon. Woodall might have been close to the basket when he missed those shots, but he had a fire-breathing dragon in pursuit. Woodall didn’t have an easy shot all day.
A Pittsburgh team that feeds off his excellence was left to starve from malnutrition.
“We studied everybody’s tendencies,’’ Cotton said. “I watched film on (Woodall). I got to see what he likes to do and I just did what was best for my team and played the best defense I could.’’
Cotton isn’t a complete player. Sometimes he struggles with his offense. But he’s even been better in that area and his three-pointer with 12:42 to play gave the Shockers some breathing room with a 38-31 lead.
As you might imagine, a defensive-minded coach like WSU’s Gregg Marshall likes him some Cotton candy.
“Malcolm called Tekele a free safety, I think he’s more of a strong safety,’’ Marshall said. “I think he’s going to come up and help in run support. He’s a tremendous athlete and tough as nails.’’
Yep, ole Nails Cotton. I like the oxymoronic nature of that nickname.
Woodale, though, wasn’t even sure what hit him. Literally. When he talked after the game, he knew only Cotton’s uniform number.
“I knew for sure once No. 32 started guarding me that their coaches didn’t forget about my freshman year," Woodall said. "They made me work for every single shot that I got, everything. You’ve got to commend him. I’m mad that I don’t know his first and last name and date of birth, the way he was on me. That’s tough.”
Cotton scored one of his baskets after picking Woodall clean for one of his five steals. He took only three shots, but he’s never on the floor because of his shooting.
He played a team-high 33 minutes, the second-most he’s played in a game this season, because his assignment was to ruin Woodall’s day. In so doing, he ruined Pitt’s day.
On a day when the Shockers made 2 of 20 three-pointers, they won by 17 and scored 73 points.
It’s because of defense. And nobody plays it better than Cotton, who literally left his man in tears.