Zach Bush started things off with an impersonation. Tekele Cotton ended things with a lasting impression.
Thursday night’s postseason celebration for the Wichita State basketball team’s season took time to honor Cotton and Darius Carter, the Shockers’ two departing seniors, a season that included a second straight Missouri Valley Conference championship, an NCAA Tournament win over Kansas, a Sweet 16 appearance and lots of individual accolades for junior guards Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet, who were named co-winners of The Wichita Eagle’s Most Valuable Player award.
It was the first time two Shockers have shared the award since 1980, when future NBA players Cliff Levingston and Antoine Carr were co-winners. The celebration, with Shocker radio color analyst Dave Dahl as the emcee, was free and open to the public at Koch Arena, where fans filled up part of the lower bowl.
Bush, a sophomore walk-on from Goddard, opened things up by taking the microphone when WSU coach Gregg Marshall was first introduced and doing his impersonation of the eighth-year coach, who spurned an offer from Alabama earlier this month to stay with the Shockers.
“I give him a ‘C’ and I heard it’s an ‘A+’ when I’m not around,” Marshall joked. “I think he was a little nervous with me here.”
Marshall opened by giving a rundown of the season, including a defining moment that occurred last fall as he was trying to get the team’s eight newcomers to blend with five returners in Baker, VanVleet, Cotton, Carter and Evan Wessel.
“There’s five young men who knew exactly what we were trying to do, every time down the court, and I had eight newbies running around like chicken with their heads cut off,” Marshall said. “So I’ve got to try and blend these two groups … and I wasn’t doing a very good job.
“So Evan, Fred, Ron and Tekele came to me and said ‘Coach, you’ve just got to stop referring to these guys as newcomers and stop referring to us as veterans,’ and they said to just let the cards fall where they may … so I listened. And it was the smartest thing I could’ve done as a coach, because these veterans knew exactly what we needed to do.”
The Shockers were recognized for their individual honors and watched a highlight video before the team awards were handed out, with the biggest cheers coming for freshman Zach Brown’s steal and dunk in the NCAA Tournament win over Kansas.
Cotton won the Ralph Miller Captain’s Award and the Shocker Radio Most Outstanding Defensive Player, VanVleet won the Warren Armstrong Jabaldi Assists Award and the Shelley Cox/KAKE-TV Leadership Award, Carter won the Xavier McDaniel Rebounding Award, Baker was named the Shafer Dart Most Inspirational Player and freshman Zach Brown was named the Cleo Littleton Most Improved Player.
Baker and VanVleet, who both announced Monday they were going to put off pro careers to return for their senior seasons, were recognized several times by both Dahl and the fans for their decisions to return, as was Marshall.
But it was normally quiet Cotton, who played in four NCAA Tournaments and was a two-time MVC Defensive Player of the Year, who was perhaps the most poignant.
Cotton came to WSU from Whitefield Academy in Marietta, Ga. He talked about being lightly-recruited, Marshall coming to his high school to meet him and even a funny story about how Marshall made him wear a helmet in practice his freshman year after he got a concussion.
“All these memories, all the teammates I’ve had all the coaches I’ve had … you all have my heart,” Cotton said. “Running through that tunnel (at Koch Arena) every game was one of the best experiences anybody could ever have.
“It’s over now, so I’ve had some time to reflect and will never, ever forget these last four years because they’ve been the best of my life. Coach Marshall encouraged me, he challenged me in ways nobody would ever see, and at the end of the day we always had each other’s back. I appreciate the opportunity he gave me.”