Jeremiah Tilmon wanted to make one thing clear before answering.
“I mean, I’m from East St. Louis,” Missouri’s sophomore center said, emphasizing the importance of declaring which side of the Mississippi he will always represent.
Got it? Good. Now, we can continue.
His answer, by the way, was yes. It does mean something to him that Tigers coach Cuonzo Martin’s rotation now heavily leans upon players who call the St. Louis area home.
Tilmon, the Tigers’ catalyst now that knee surgery has sidelined Jontay Porter, was a no-doubt starter when the Tigers tipped off Tuesday against Central Arkansas.
He was joined by Edwardsville native and sophomore guard Mark Smith, who went from expecting to sit out this season after transferring from Illinois, to receiving a waiver for immediate eligibility, to starting.
Perhaps the biggest surprise was the start of freshman guard Javon Pickett of Belleville East. Martin has been raving about the under-the-radar prospect. Turned out he wasn’t bluffing.
The bench player who logged the most minutes (24) in the Tigers’ 68-55 win was another familiar face, freshman guard Torrence Watson of Whitfield.
Maybe the columns on the waistband of Mizzou’s new uniforms should have an arch in the background.
“It feels comfortable,” Tilmon said. “We all know each other. We have been playing against each other for the longest time now. And now we are on the same team. We are going to rock out.”
The St. Louis (area) Tigers will be more than an interesting angle for Post-Dispatch readers to follow. Their development will play a significant role in the team’s goal of defying the expectations that fell after Porter’s season-ending knee surgery. More important, how this young core gels will help decide the Tigers’ trajectory — both on the court and in recruiting — for years to come.
Here’s something to consider: Four of the six players who logged the most minutes in Mizzou’s first game have once occupied a spot on a Post-Dispatch All-Metro boys basketball team. The two not included in that group were senior stalwart starters Kevin Puryear and Jordan Geist, who wound up thankful their younger teammates spackled over the duo’s seven combined points on three-of-17 shooting.
The future has to be now if the Tigers are going to be competitive in the daunting SEC.
That future has a St. Louis accent.
Mizzou will play through Tilmon. The 6-foot-10 center scored 16 points on an efficient eight-of-14 shooting. Despite Tilmon’s career-high 14 attempts, Martin said that was not enough.
“Because he has a good spirit, and because he’s a good guy and has a big heart, he’s not the kind of guy who is going to demand the ball,” Martin said. “So, I have to force it. I have to call plays. I have to force guys to get him the ball, to see him. Then, he will make plays.”
Tilmon is so unselfish, he can at times be too quick to share. In the smallest of sample sizes against an overmatched opponent, he looked more comfortable letting scoring opportunities develop.
“He was young last year,” Martin said. “The one thing I said to him is, ‘You have to realize how strong you are.’ He can move you. Two steps, and he’s at the rim.”
Central Arkansas had no chance of stopping Tilmon’s throwback hook-shot. Few teams will if he’s able to anchor near the rim. But two things must happen for the Tigers to maximize Tilmon’s potential.
He has to stay off the bench. Foul trouble followed him like fog as a freshman. He logged 18 minutes before his first foul Tuesday. He seemed more proud of that than his point total.
“I told y’all I was working on that,” Tilmon said with a smile. “It worked out for me. I was keeping my hands behind my ears. I was just going straight up.”
The change was noted from the other sideline. Central Arkansas coach Russ Pennell watched foul-prone freshman Tilmon on film. This wasn’t him.
“It was kind of surprising to me,” Pennell said. “I thought he played really good, positionally. So many fouls in the post are you jockeying for position. What he did a nice job of was getting position and then holding it. Because he is so strong, he was pushing our guys out of their comfort zone.”
The second thing? Tilmon’s teammates must capitalize when defenses collapse to stop the center.
“Jeremiah is so big and so skilled, he can dominate,” Pickett said. “He can score whenever he wants. That’s going to make people double-team him. That opens up shots for us. We just have to be shot-ready and knock them down.”
The Tigers made eight of 26 3-pointers on Tuesday. Ouch. But Pickett, Smith and Watson combined to make eight of 15 threes. Not bad.
Pickett’s first of two 3’s gave the Tigers their first points. Tilmon was credited with that assist. The big man also assisted on one of the five 3’s Smith swished.
“I was looking for him,” Tilmon said within earshot of Smith. “He came out of the gate stroking it.”
Growing pains should be expected for this bunch. Chemistry, however, should not be an issue. These players grew up orbiting one another in high school and summer leagues. They have helped East St. Louis native Martin change Mizzou’s recruiting profile in the region. Future Tiger targets are watching Mizzou.
Tilmon is determined to make sure they see wins.
“Everybody is trying to say the season is over with Jontay down,” he said. “We are going to ignore all that and continue to play.”