The former Whitefield Academy standout, who helped the Wolfpack to consecutive Class A semifinals in 2010 and ’11, has done the same with Wichita State.
This time, however, he won’t be playing in front of scattered crowds at the Macon Centreplex. He’ll be starting for the Shockers against top-seeded Louisville, in front of tens of thousands of people inside the Georgia Dome.
Cotton’s high school coach said his former player would be ready.
“He’s played a more aggressive role (during the NCAA tournament),” said Tyrone Johnson, who took the season off from coaching but remains at Whitefield as an administrator. “It’s probably a prelude to what he’s going to do next year.”
A sophomore, Cotton moved into a starting role with Wichita State this season. Cotton averaged 6.4 points, 3.9 rebounds and 1.7 assists per game, but defense is what got him on the floor.
Once the NCAA tournament started, Cotton’s defensive intensity went to another level.
In the Shockers’ second-round win against Pittsburgh, Cotton held the Panthers’ leading scorer, Tray Woodall, to two points. Woodall was so crushed that he broke into tears during the post-game interview session.
Cotton then held Gonzaga’s Kevin Pangos to 6-of-17 shooting, and then did the same thing to La Salle’s Ramon Galloway, who was just 4-of-15.
Cotton saved his best for the regional final against Ohio State.
He frustrated Buckeyes point guard Aaron Craft into a 2-for-12 shooting night and prevented the Ohio State floor leader from distributing the ball at will.
Wichita State built a 20-point second-half lead, and though the Buckeyes nearly came all the way back, Cotton provided two of the biggest offensive plays of his career.
With 2:20 to play, and the Shockers hanging to a three-point lead, Cotton connected on a pull-up 3-pointer. On Wichita State’s next trip down the floor, he grabbed the offensive rebound that sealed the game for good.
“It was vintage Tekele,” said Johnson, who said he will be in the Georgia Dome on Saturday to watch his former pupil. “The offensive rebound and the 3-pointer, he’s just about getting it done and does what it takes to win.
“He typically pulls out the impossible.”
Cotton could have easily found himself somewhere instead of Wichita if not for former Shockers assistant Chad Dollar.
Dollar, an Atlanta native who’s now an assistant at Georgia Tech, was on Gregg Marshall’s staff at Wichita State for only one season. But in that one year, he brought in two fellow Georgia natives — Cotton and junior college recruit Carl Hall, who’s become the Shockers’ top rebounder and second-leading scorer.
“He has a keen eye for recognizing talent that others may not be able to see,” Johnson said of Dollar. “He recruited two kids who, on paper, weren’t really that highly thought of.”
Now they are in the Final Four.
Since Wichita State’s victory over Ohio State last Saturday, Cotton said he’s heard from many of his former teammates, including current Georgia guard Kenny Gaines and UAB football player Kennard Backman.
“They’ve all been calling and texting,” Cotton said. “They’ve all been congratulating me and giving me love.”
Johnson and Whitefield athletic director Lynn Dupree said the school has extended an invitation to Wichita State to allow the Shockers’ to practice in Cotton’s old gym as long as they are in town. While nothing has been finalized, Cotton said it would be great to be back on campus.
Johnson said Cotton making it to the Final Four is already been a great thing for Whitefield Academy.
“It’s exciting for the entire Whitefield community,” Johnson said. “We can use Tekele as a great example of what can be accomplished here at Whitefield.
“He’s getting to experience a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”