The graduation of captain Reggie Willhite ’12 left the Ivy League wondering how the Yale Bulldogs men’s basketball team could replicate Willhite’s lockdown defense and thunderous dunks. As Ancient Eight play draws near, guard Armani Cotton ’15 stands poised to fill the void.

In the team’s four games since Jan. 1, Cotton has averaged 12 points and 6.5 rebounds while shooting a blistering 71.4 percent from the floor. Although he has started in 10 of the team’s 17 contests thus far, head coach James Jones said that Cotton needed time earlier in the season to find his place in the team’s offense.

“Hard work has paid dividends [for Cotton],” Jones said. “Now he’s been able to see what his role is.”

Cotton’s role has vastly expanded since last year, when he saw action in just 13 games and scored only 14 points. Despite getting limited minutes behind Wilhite on the depth chart, Cotton said he did not want it to affect his game.

“Above all else, I wanted to make sure [when I came to college] that I remained the same confident player that I was coming in,” Cotton said. “I didn’t want my performance or lack thereof on the court to change [that].”

When the Bulldogs visited Holy Cross Jan. 4, Cotton demonstrated his full potential — collecting his first career double-double and leading the Elis to a 61–54 road win. His 20 points and 12 rebounds were both career highs. Forward Brandon Sherrod ’15 said he believes that these recent successes could just be the beginning for Cotton.

“I think he’s just a great all-around player,” Sherrod said. “I think he can definitely give us 10–12 points a night and also contribute on rebounds and on defense.”

Both Cotton and Sherrod credited Cotton’s current successes to his hard work over the summer.

Playing in the Nike Pro City League over the summer, a league that featured professional players from the NBA and abroad, Cotton helped lead his team, Dyckman, to the championship game, though the team fell in overtime.

Joining the team was a coincidence, Cotton said, as Brooklyn Nets guard MarShon Brooks left the team and Cotton was called to take his place.

Assigned to guard NBA-guard Gary Forbes in the championship game, Cotton said that he was able to come away with several steals, including one that helped to force overtime. The caliber of the competition and the atmosphere of the crowd led Cotton to say that “for that one moment I felt like I was in an NBA game.”

Joining Cotton on Dyckman was Yale teammate Austin Morgan ’13. In addition to Nike Pro City, Cotton also participated in workouts and pick-up games that included NBA stars J.R. Smith and Carmelo Anthony from the New York Knicks, as well as Mike Dunleavy of the Milwaukee Bucks. Cotton said that although all of the stars were generous in their advice, he learned the most from the example that the Dunleavy set with his work ethic.

“The way he took care of his body,” Cotton said. “Even for a casual pickup game he’d be there an hour before the game stretching and getting his shots up. … It shaped his game and made him consistent on the court. I’ve tried to incorporate that.”

Cotton did not want to give the impression that his life revolves solely around basketball, however. Stating that while most of his time is spent on the court, on schoolwork or with his “tight-knit” circle of friends, he views himself as social and willing to meet new people — especially if it involves chess.

“I love chess,” Cotton said. “Anybody who wants to come over and get checkmated, can come try me anytime.”

The Bulldogs are 6–11 so far this season.