Bob Lutz

Bob Lutz: Tekele Cotton approaches WSU senior day defensively

Wichita State's Tekele Cotton gets ready to block a shot by Indiana State's Tre’ Bennett in early February at Koch Arena.
Wichita State's Tekele Cotton gets ready to block a shot by Indiana State's Tre’ Bennett in early February at Koch Arena. The Wichita Eagle

Yes, a lot of people from ESPN are going to be at Koch Arena on Saturday for the showdown between Wichita State-Northern Iowa.

But you know who else might show up for senior day? Everybody Tekele Cotton has guarded during his four seasons at Wichita State.

They’ll bring flowers and bottles of champagne, especially those who are still active and don’t ever have to worry again about being tracked down, captured and smothered by Cotton’s defense.

It’s difficult to quantify a player’s defensive abilities; suffice it to say Cotton has drawn the toughest assignment in almost every game he’s played as a Shocker.

Sometimes he gives away size or quickness. He never, though, gives away heart. The 6-foot-3 Cotton, built like a football safety at 205 pounds, licks his chops for the opportunity to bust the chops of an opponent.

He’ll be doing that for the final time Saturday in a winner-takes-all regular-season finale against Northern Iowa. Both teams are 16-1 in the Missouri Valley Conference, so Senior Day has even more significance than usual.

Cotton and fellow senior Darius Carter will be honored after Saturday’s game. It wouldn’t make much sense for the Shockers to lose then, would it?

“Our only goal now is to win this game,” Cotton said. “We’re trying to win a championship.”

Cotton is 22 points away from becoming the 43rd player in Shocker history to score 1,000 points. He’ll finish his career among the all-time leaders in steals and assists.

But it’s defense – and dunks – that Cotton will be remembered for. He’s a freakish athlete whose highlight-reel slams made a few SportsCenter top 10s over the years. He particularly remembers two – a flying baseline dunk at Illinois State last season and an out-of-bounds alley-oop pass from teammate Fred VanVleet that resulted in a dunk that nearly brought Koch Arena down this season.

Cotton says he surprises himself sometimes with his dunks and credits strength and conditioning coach Kerry Rosenboom and trainer Todd Fagan for making him the athlete he is today.

“With the type of work we put in, I feel even better than I did when I first got here to Wichita State,” Cotton said. “It’s a real regimen.

“I knew I could dunk, but not like this. My athleticism has gotten better. When I got here I knew I could jump and I knew was athletic, but there comes a time when you get more and more serious and invest more time into your game. That’s what it really is now, just more investment into my game and my body.”

Yet no matter what Cotton does on a basketball floor to make the jaws of fans drop and their eyes open wide, he rarely shows the excitement that bubbles beneath the surface.

It’s a mistake to dismiss Cotton as unemotional – he says he’s churning with emotion when he plays – even though the expression on his face rarely changes. Even after his most thunderous, wondrous dunks, Cotton usually jogs to the other end of the floor without drawing more attention to himself.

He says it’s because he doesn’t want to anger WSU coach Gregg Marshall with a technical foul.

“I don’t want no problems,” Cotton said. “It’s just two points. Those dunks get the crowd hyped and I kind of maybe flex just a little bit, but I ain’t going to yell at nobody. Never.”

Cotton has guarded them all over the past four years and says Evansville’s Colt Ryan and D.J. Balentine have been amongst the toughest to defend.

“Ryan was very underrated,” Cotton said. “If you ever gave him any kind of a look, he’s knocking it down. And he can put the ball on the ground, too.”

Cotton made special mention of former Creighton All-American Doug McDermott, putting him in a category all by himself. McDermott had four or five inches on Cotton during their meetings, but Cotton always made McDermott earn his points when they were matched up.

It has to be torturous to be guarded by Cotton. He bursts through screens, always has his feet set, moves his hands and is generally a pest. He doesn’t give an inch. Ball fakes against him are a waste of time because he doesn’t bite.

Players might score against Cotton occasionally, but they’re never sure they can, or even want to, do so again.

Cotton, who is from Marietta, Ga., credits his mom, Leza Jones, for his desire to defend.

“That was the mindset I tried to give him,” said Jones, a former high school player who coached her sons, Tekele and Teddy, when they were growing up. “When Tekele was five or six years old, I taught him that defense wins games. He just loves playing defense. It’s a challenge for him.”

Cotton is the perfect Gregg Marshall player. He wasn’t highly recruited out of high school after sustaining injuries during his junior and senior seasons. Marshall saw the athleticism, took Cotton into his lab and created a defensive monster whose dunks can frighten children.

“For me, being able to have a guy that is so good defensively and such a tough-minded kid has been great,” Marshall said. “He always is there for you. He’s always got nicks and dings and he never complains.”

Cotton has played through a jammed middle finger on his shooting hand since mid-November. It’s still wrapped, still sore. He also had a flare-up of pink eye this season. But he doesn’t miss games. He doesn’t miss practices. He is always out there, making life as miserable as possible for the poor sap he’s guarding.

“It’ll be my final game here (Saturday),” Cotton said. “It’s gonna hit me. I don’t know how deep it’s gonna hit me because I’ll probably be thinking about the game.

“But I’m no longer going to be playing on this court after this game. Over the last four years, I’ve really grown to love that court. I’m used to running out and seeing all the fans and those fans are crazy. It’s been electric here.”

It sure has. And some of Cotton’s dunks have provided enough wattage to light a city.

Reach Bob Lutz at 316-268-6597 or blutz@wichitaeagle.com. Follow him on Twitter: @boblutz.

No. 10 Northern Iowa

at No. 11 Wichita State

When: 1 p.m. Saturday

Where: Koch Arena

Records: UNI 27-2, 16-1 MVC; WSU 26-3, 16-1

Radio: KEYN, 103.7-FM

TV: ESPN

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