After Jeremiah Tilmon was released by Illinois in the wake of former coach John Groce’s dismissal, he knew many figured, especially Fighting Illini fans, that it was a foregone conclusion he’d wind up at Missouri.
Tilmon, then a star center for East St. Louis (Ill.) High, wasn’t so certain.
“I had to weigh my options again and didn’t know where I was going,” Tilmon said in his first public remarks since signing with the Tigers in May. “My mind was everywhere, and I was talking to so many teams.”
Fellow Mizzou freshman forward Michael Porter Jr. was dogged in his pursuit of Tilmon.
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“I knew I would need some guys around me to make this team what I really thought it could be, so I was texting Blake (Harris) every day and texting (Tilmon) every day, trying to get both of them here, because I know how good they are,” Porter said.
In fact, Porter set up a group chat with Harris and Tilmon as well as the Tigers’ other incoming freshman, combo guard C.J. Roberts.
“We would text each other on a daily basis just making sure we knew where everyone was going,” said Tilmon, who joked that Porter was a better recruiter than new MU coach Cuonzo Martin.
It was those exchanges that ultimately convinced Tilmon to join Missouri’s rebuilding effort.
“The group chat, we were just creating a bond with each other every day and creating a bond,” Tilmon said. “I didn’t really know C.J. and Blake, but once I got to know them I felt comfortable with it. I already knew Mike, but that’s what really helped me. I wanted to know I could trust who I was playing with, and I feel like I trust them.”
Tilmon and Porter first met as teammates five years ago with the vaunted Kansas City-based AAU outfit Mokan Elite.
Together again, the duo hope to help make the Tigers’ sad-sack three-year run of successive last-place SEC finishes a distant memory.
Porter grabs most of the headlines, but Tilmon is a key figure in the rebuilding effort as Mizzou has lacked a true two-way post threat in recent seasons.
Martin lauded Tilmon’s ability to run the floor and provide the rim-protecting and rebounding presence the Tigers’ desperately need.
Junior forward Kevin Puryear has been impressed with Tilmon’s footwork and surprising strength, which also caught senior forward Jordan Barnett’s attention.
“He can get whatever position he wants,” Barnett said. “… When a rebound goes up, he’s so hard to box out. He’s a bull down there. That’s the biggest thing that’s shocked me honestly. I didn’t think he’d be that strong at such a young age.”
Everybody who’s matched up with Tilmon at practice this summer comes away impressed.
“Even coming here, he’s way better than I expected him to be,” Porter said. “We played together a few years ago, but he’s a monster.”
Some analysts thought Tilmon’s offensive game might need time to adjust, but he’s focused on refining his post skills during morning workouts.
Porter even chuckled when Tilmon was asked if he thought his offensive game might need time to develop.
“That’s because his offensive game is ready,” Porter said. “He’s been killing it in practice and he’s going to do the same thing in games.”
Of course, it hasn’t been a seamless transition to college life.
“I took it as a learning lesson,” he said. “(Coach Martin) broke down things to me like what could have happened and what I need to do now, so it’s in the past and we’re just moving forward.”
Tilmon didn’t shy away from answering The Star’s question about the incident and already is bracing for the reception he expects to receive from jilted Illinois fans during the annual Braggin’ Rights Game five months from now in St. Louis.
“That’s going to be a lot of fans disagreeing with me being on the other team,” Tilmon said. “But I’m just going to play the game, not worry about it all and hopefully get the win.”