Jeremiah Tilmon’s first-half numbers Tuesday were overshadowed by the absence of one. When the Missouri Tigers headed to the locker room at halftime against Central Arkansas, their 6-foot-10 forward had yet to collect a single foul.
Tilmon stood strong while guarding his opponents and held his hands high above his head. What were whistles last season became sound defensive plays against Central Arkansas. It was exactly what Cuonzo Martin needs from his big man going forward.
Foul trouble frequently kept Tilmon out of games last season. Though he was one of Missouri’s most productive players, he only played an average of 19.4 minutes a game.
On Tuesday, he played 26.
“I told y’all I was working on that, staying on the floor,” a smiling Tilmon said after the game. “It worked out for me. I was keeping my hands behind my ears, and I was just going straight up.”
Tilmon racked up 121 fouls his freshman year: an average of 3.66 a game and 24 more than the next closest Missouri player. Martin said Tilmon is putting forth effort to cut down on fouls, though the coach wants to make sure his big man doesn’t lose his aggressive spirit.
That spirit will be key for Missouri. The East St. Louis-native’s size and ability to score beneath the basket make him an NBA hopeful and a fan favorite in Columbia. A Tilmon-narrated hype video played on the Mizzou Arena video board moments before tipoff, and the 47-second clip ended with a highlight dunk from his freshman season.
With Jontay Porter out for the year with a torn ACL, much of Missouri’s hope lies with Tilmon. He got off to a solid start in the opener Tuesday, finishing with 16 points — one off his single-game career high. He grabbed four offensive rebounds in the first 2 minutes, 12 seconds and was so effective that Central Arkansas coach Russ Pennell tasked an extra player to “chip on” Tilmon.
“You kind of start sending a second guy and actually told the guy guarding him not to worry about getting the rebound himself but just to keep him off the glass,” Pennell said. “You’ve got to have a big ol’ body to play against him. He’s tough, and he’s a load.”
The strategy halted Tilmon’s rebounds — he grabbed just one more the rest of the evening — but Central Arkansas rarely had an answer when Tilmon got the ball in the post. He threw down his first dunk of the season and used his hook move to pour shots over defenders’ heads.
Ahead of the season, Martin said he told Tilmon that he should score every time he’s not double-teamed. The forward looked more at ease with the ball in the paint than he did last season: He’s comfortable enough to let plays develop.
“I think again the biggest growth for him: passing out of the double,” the Missouri coach said. “A year ago, he passed that thing quick, (got) it out of his hand as opposed to being strong.”
By drawing extra defenders, Tilmon allows other shooters on the team to get open, so he can kick the ball out to them for open shots. After collecting only 15 assists in 33 games last season, Tilmon had two on Tuesday.
Tilmon’s first foul came with 14:44 left in the game, and it seemed to spark a return to his freshman habits. Referees blew the whistle three more times on Tilmon over the next eight minutes.
Though he was in foul trouble, the sophomore played in the game’s dwindling minutes and avoided fouling out. He said Martin makes him play as if he has four fouls in practice, which has helped him stay aggressive without drawing a fifth whistle.
Aside from what he called a poor third foul, Martin said he was impressed with Tilmon’s showing in the season opener. He can move defenders with his big body, and his post moves off the left shoulder are difficult for opponents to guard.
“He’s still got a ways to go,” Martin said, “but it’s fun to watch.”