COLUMBIA, Mo. — Around the Missouri men’s basketball team, there’s nobody who takes for granted what Jeremiah Tilmon means to the team’s success this season. If there’s one factor that could separate the Tigers from a trip to the NCAA Tournament and another March spent at home, it’s the big man in the middle.
And everybody knows it.
What does Tilmon mean to the Tigers this season?
“Everything,” junior guard Mark Smith said. “Jeremiah is dominant. I think he’s the best big (man) in the SEC, and now he’s added so much to his game. He’s the strongest by far. I don’t think anyone’s stronger. If (the offense) doesn’t run through Jeremiah, there’s something wrong.”
As the Tigers embark on their 114th campaign with Tuesday’s 7 p.m. season-opening tipoff at home against Incarnate Word, Cuonzo Martin’s team features one of college basketball’s endangered species in the junior from East St. Louis: a 6-foot-10 center who’s also a veteran of the college game.
In two seasons Tilmon has averaged only 21 minutes per game but still ranks 12th among current SEC players in career points, seventh in rebounds and seventh in blocked shots.
Big men who are both skilled and seasoned don’t last long at the college level. But with his struggles to avoid fouls and stay on the floor consistently, Tilmon faces another season to add to his pro credentials. He’s got the size, the strength, the slick post moves and, by all accounts around the program, the work ethic. Now he just has to stay on the floor and become the centerpiece to Martin’s team.
“Everything we do this year, depends on what he wants to do,” sophomore guard Xavier Pinson said. “He can wake up tomorrow morning and say, ‘I don’t want to play today,’ and we can have a bad game. I’m not saying he’s going to do that. But I know where his mind is, and where his mind is now, we’re all better off and can be dominant.”
How good can Tilmon be in the SEC if he can manage the fouls?
“I’m not even gonna lie: He’s a beast,” Pinson said. “He’s an animal. There hasn’t been any time this (offseason) that he’s shown any weakness.”
For his career, Tilmon has averaged 9.1 points per game and five rebounds but also 3.6 fouls and 2.2 turnovers. He shot 54.5% from the field last year, the top mark among all returning players in the SEC.
This offseason, Martin has talked at length to Tilmon about commanding the ball in the halfcourt. Martin bombards Tilmon with double teams in practice every day. But when the lane is clear of extra bodies, he can’t defer to teammates, even if they’re open.
Martin said he often tells him: “You have to demand the ball without me saying, ‘Run a play for Jeremiah.’”
The message has started to sink in, Tilmon said.
“I can say there’s been times where I’ve been mad (and thought), man, they’ve got eyes. They see me. They can get me the ball,” said Tilmon, voted a second-team preseason all-SEC choice by the league coaches. “In the heat of the moment if they’re getting pressured super hard and they’re worried about not turning the ball over, they’re probably not going to see me every time if I’m not calling for the ball. I just have to man up, take ownership and call for the ball. And then I have to do something with it when I get it.”
That’s been the impressive part in preseason practices. Teammates say Tilmon has been more ferocious with the ball during practices and scrimmages. Yes, he’s still working on his 3-point shot — he’s yet to attempt one in a game — but he’s dunking every chance in the paint.
“We need him out there every second we can have him out there,” junior guard Dru Smith said. “I know personally I’m excited to get him the ball, and I know as a team we’re going to get him the ball. We expect teams to send doubles at him and he’s going to make the right plays. Working through him is our best option.”