Tekele Cotton showered, did a short radio interview and went straight to the team bus for the long ride home after Wichita State’s 76-53 win over Missouri State on Wednesday night.
That’s how Cotton rolls. He prefers his coach, Gregg Marshall, and teammates Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker do the talking.
Cotton prefers doing the walking.
Against the overmatched Bears, Cotton scored 15 points, tying VanVleet and Baker for game-high honors. He had six rebounds and four assists and, as usual, turned in a stellar defensive performance, holding Missouri State’s Austin Ruder to six points on 3-of-9 shooting.
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“He was the best player on the floor tonight,” Missouri State coach Paul Lusk said.
Cotton has always been a defensive load, game after game drawing the toughest perimeter assignment.
As time has gone on, Cotton has advanced as an offensive player. He’s driving the ball to the basket more. His three-point shot has improved.
He sometimes gets overshadowed because not enough people pay attention to his enormous defensive ability.
But Marshall does. His teammates do. The rest of the Missouri Valley Conference knows.
“The thing about (Cotton) is how physical and strong he is,” said the Bears’ Ruder, who shoots well enough to potentially keep the Bears, who had just nine players in uniform Wednesday night, in a game. “He’s a really strong guy. Every time you catch the ball you feel him nudge you in the back a little bit. He’s just letting you know he’s there.”
It’s not just Cotton providing defense.
Ruder said it was tough for the Bears to make a pass against the Shockers with confidence it would get to a teammate.
“It’s hard just to initiate the offense against Wichita State,” he said.
The Shockers haven’t allowed more than 62 points in a game since Hawaii scored 79 in a one-point overtime win for WSU on Dec. 23. In the past five games, Wichita State has allowed 43, 53, 55, 41 and 53 points.
The Shockers beat most Missouri Valley Conference teams before the opening tip because of their experience and talent. Perhaps Northern Iowa will be a match for Wichita State on Jan. 31 in Cedar Falls, but it’ll take a gargantuan effort by the Panthers.
WSU wasn’t sharp during the first half against Missouri State. The Shockers aren’t perfect – they do have occasional lapses.
But in a league that lacks firepower, Wichita State looks as unbeatable as its 25 straight MVC wins suggests.
To beat the Shockers, most opposing teams will have to play their best. And hope Wichita State plays its worst, or close to it.
Good luck with that.
The Shockers are 4-0 in Valley road games this season, winning by an average of 16.5 points.
“Somebody said good is the enemy of great,” Marshall said. “And these guys want to be great.”
Cotton has come as far in four seasons as any player I can remember. He’s always been a physical specimen, at 6-foot-3, 205 pounds.
But when Cotton was a freshman, I questioned whether he had the offensive skill set to become a mainstay.
Note to self: Never question Cotton.
He’s a career 44.5 percent shooter. He’s better from the three-point line than anyone imagined he would be. Not satisfied to be a “defensive specialist” he went to work on his offensive game and the results are obvious.
“He’s a great player,” Ruder said. “You can’t leave him open or he’ll knock down open shots. And he can take you off the bounce. It’s just a tough matchup all the way around.”
Cotton often gives up a few inches to the player he’s guarding. But it rarely matters. He’s strong enough to more than hold his own when players try to post him up in the block and nearly impossible to beat off the dribble.
Marshall knows that when he assigns Cotton to guard a particular player, that player is in for a tough night.
“It doesn’t necessarily mean he’s going to shut a player down,” Marshall said. “He’s gone against some good players who have scored points against him. But it usually takes a lot of shots to do it.”
For example, Cotton guarded Evansville junior guard D.J. Balentine on Saturday and Balentine, one of the Valley’s best scorers, had 16 points. But he needed 17 shots to get there and made only six.
Cotton had tweaked an ankle the day before the Evansville game and Marshall feared he might not be available.
“I told him right then that he was done with practice,” Marshall said. “I told him I needed him tomorrow. But I made him stop so hopefully we would have him against D.J. and again tonight against Ruder.
“Tekele just goes out and does his job. He’s so coachable and tough and he never complains.”
VanVleet said Cotton brings his lunch pail to every practice, every game. He plays hard, then gets ready for the next challenge.
“He’s so humble, which shows his character,” VanVleet said. “We all take on the burden of helping him with the guy he’s guarding, but he’s doing the hard work.”
Cotton doesn’t back down from hard work. And he’d just as soon be on a bus, with his thoughts, than talk about it.