Shockers' Cotton just might be the most underrated player on the most underrated team in the country
FEB 13, 2014 12:57a ET
KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Everybody wants to talk about the dunk. Gregg Marshall would sooner talk about the text.
Help me be special, it said. I want to be special.
Tekele Cotton, pleading the wrong thing to the wrong man at the wrong time.
"And at that time, I was (expletive)-ed off at him because one of his grades, academically, wasn't up to par," the coach of No. 4 Wichita State, one of the two remaining unbeatens in Division I, tells FOXSportsKansasCity.com. "And I gave him some sass (about being) special, when you don't want to be special in the books.
"'So until you get that addressed, I'm not going to even deal with you being (special).' Just trying to challenge him to be the best he can be, on and off the court.
"And we haven't talked about it since. But he got my message. He got his grades up."
Got his game up, too.
It takes a village to get to 26-0, and that's the underlying beauty of what the Shockers are trying to pull off. Off-guard Ron Baker is the folk hero with the relentless motor and flowing Luke Skywalker locks. Forward Cleanthony Early is Captain Clutch, Wichita's rock, heart and anchor -- as well as the likely Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year. Fred VanVleet is the emerging, cold-blooded star at the point.
And yet they probably don't get this far down the undefeated path without Cotton at the wing, doing -- well, everything. As February tests patience, discipline, concentration and depth (especially depth), the Georgia native has pushed things to another notch, averaging 14.0 points and 3.8 assists for the month while shooting .529 from the floor and .476 on his 3-point tries (10-of-21).
The 6-foot-2 junior heads into this weekend's trip to Evansville ranked among the MVC's Top 10 in offensive rebounds (10th), offensive rating (sixth), defensive rating (fourth), defensive win shares (fourth), and total win shares (fifth). Basically, when the Shox need it, Tekele does it. No fanfare. No fuss.
"(Marshall) just told me to just believe in myself, really," says Cotton, who averages 10 points, 4.5 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.2 steals per contest. "That's main thing I got out of it.
"He's always going to have my back. He's my coach. I mean, I'd be crazy not to listen to him. He gave me good feedback, and just helped me."
A push here. A tweak there. It was mental more than anything, with perhaps a slight technical adjustment toward getting a more consistent release on his jump shot.
"You want to make it feel comfortable when the ball leaves my hands," says Cotton, whose "True Shooting" percentage -- which takes into account 2-point baskets, 3-point baskets, and free-throw makes -- has gone from .508 last winter to .526 as of Wednesday night.
"That's what I look forward to. I really don't look forward to this number or that number. I just look forward to being comfortable with myself and feeling good when the ball leaves my hands."
For the last two years, Cotton was typecast as more of the defensive-stopper type; any production on the offensive end was considered gravy. But while his field-goal and 3-point percentage were up last year, his confidence was anything but. Teams sagged off him, even as recently as late last year, through conference play. That bothered Cotton, who didn't go out there with the idea of being the fifth wheel on the mini-van.
Dude wanted the respect. Dude wanted the coverage. Dude wanted the fear.
"I saw teams were playing off me and giving me space," Cotton says. "And at that time, I wasn't that confident in myself and that shot. I knew that was something I had to work on. I knew I had to make it really hard to guard me, whether it's (because of) the 3-point shot or whether I could shoot in general. I needed to make them guard me, for the sake of my team. If people are sagging off me and I'm wide open, that (hurts) the flow of the offense."
These days, you sag at your own risk. Cotton dropped 19 on Tennessee December 14. His nuclear slam over 6-foot-9 Illinois State forward John Jones January 22 went airborne, then viral. Give him space now, he'll stop, pop, or drive all the way to paint.
"Really, it was just growing into (it)," Cotton says. "You get years of experience -- you know what you're playing like, you know what's gong to come, you see a lot of things. And I've seen a lot of things."
"I just got confidence from my teammates during a game to shoot the ball and be more dominant, be more aggressive any way that I can. (And) that's what I'm going to do. Whether I score zero points or I score 20 points, I'm going to do whatever I can to help my team. It's just more confidence."
The defense-first mindset hasn't left him, either. Cotton is an old-school plugger, a fan of NBA stars of the '80s and '90s whose kids are roughly his age now. Nobody ever talks about how Michael Jordan was a nine-time member of the league's All-Defensive first team. Cotton does.
"I've seen him play a few times where he shadows the ball, and you could see it in his face -- he doesn't want the person to score the ball," Cotton says. "(I like) Jordan and (ex-Spurs stopper) Bruce Bowen, people like that who really pride themselves in that, just that overall gist of it."
He's even sought some pointers from former NBA guard Mitchell Wiggins, father of his good friend and teammate Nick Wiggins and Kansas phenom Andrew Wiggins.
"You don't want to have somebody scoring on you or anything like that," Cotton says. "It's just competition."
It's chutzpah, too, the kind of Play-Angry chutzpah that Marshall, deep down, really, really likes. When Baker sprained an ankle before the Tennessee game at Intrust Bank Arena two months ago, Marshall challenged Cotton again, this time about picking up some of the offensive slack.
"And when Ron Baker's sitting there and we're thinking there's no chance he's going to play on Friday," Marshall recalls, "and Tekele blows up in practice."
The coach was so impressed that he even made a point to text him afterwards:
Marshall: OK, who's that dude you brought to practice?
Cotton: LOL, Coach, that dude was me.
Marshall: Can you bring him to the game tomorrow? Because we're going to need him.
They got him. In addition to the 19 points against the Vols, Cotton collected five rebounds, four assists, and shot 9-of-11 from the free-throw line.
"It was just something simple like that," the coach says, "and he just turned it on."
The special ones do that. The special ones find a way.
You can follow Sean Keeler on Twitter @seankeeler or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.