During Missouri’s loss to Alabama on Wednesday, Jeremiah Tilmon looked like he belonged in an airport, not a basketball arena.
Tilmon had eight points and seven rebounds in 27 minutes but looked timid on defense. He shied away from contact and played with his hands up, as if he was going through security screening. He picked up two early fouls, but played the final 32 minutes without hearing a whistle blown at him. Still, his timidness came at the expense of productivity.
Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin isn’t changing his strategy and will continue to play Tilmon even if he is in foul trouble.
“It doesn’t do us any good him sitting on the bench,” Martin said. “He has to learn. He has to go through it. I think the next step for him is having the confidence on the floor and not even thinking about the fouls. That means he’s a part of the game now. I said, ‘We’ll roll with it,’ because he has to learn.”
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This was the latest example of one of Tilmon’s coaches coming to grips with a difficult truth: Almost halfway through the talented center’s sophomore year, his aggressiveness continues to be difficult to control. Tilmon and foul trouble have a long history, and with Jontay Porter out for the year, it’s paramount that Tilmon fix the issue before Missouri’s season turns hopeless.
Porter’s absence this season has had a two-fold effect on Tilmon. Without Porter, Tilmon is Missouri’s best post player, the most critical factor in the Tigers’ success. But Porter’s presence last season was huge for Tilmon off the floor, especially on the bench, where Porter helped calm Tilmon during games in which the center dealt with foul trouble.
After Tilmon sat most of the first half of Missouri’s win at Alabama last season, he returned to help key MU’s win and scored 12 points in just 25 minutes while Porter added 13. Following the game, Tilmon said playing with Porter forced teams to take their attention off him, which allowed him to better analyze his situation.
“I can plan what I’m going to do,” Tilmon said at the time.
In Martin’s year and a half running the program, the Tigers are 18-2 in games in which Tilmon scores at least 10 points. Missouri is 11-17 in the rest.
Because Tilmon leads Missouri with 54 personal fouls, almost 20 more than the next player, his teammates said it’s tough to talk to Tilmon about his issues, which are drastically different than theirs.
“You can talk to him, try to make him calm down,” freshman guard Javon Pickett said. “Once it happens right off the bat in the game, you don’t know what to say because you don’t go through it.”
After Tilmon fouled out in Missouri’s loss at South Carolina after just 13 minutes, Martin didn’t credit Gamecocks veteran forward Chris Silva for baiting Tilmon. The coach just said Tilmon’s style of play caused the foul trouble. The next day, on the SEC coaches’ teleconference, Martin said helping Tilmon fix his foul issues has been very hard.
Martin has tried a little bit of everything. He’s said before that he automatically gives Tilmon two fouls in team scrimmages, an attempt to train the inconsistent but talented post player to play with more caution. If Martin even sees Tilmon’s arms moving in a way that could get generate a foul call, he’ll blow the play dead.
He’s not the first coach to employ these tactics with Tilmon though, and the center’s continued struggles are proof there’s no simple fix.
Tony Young, Tilmon’s coach for his first two years at East St. Louis High, even told Tilmon to stop jumping when trying to block a shot. Instead, Young told Tilmon to “wall up,” meaning he should keep his feet planted while playing defense. If an opponent scores over you, so be it.
“That works in high school,” Young explained. “In college, that gets your (rear end) dunked on.”
And even at the high school level, the strategy had limited success. Like Pickett, Missouri guard Mark Smith played against Tilmon regularly in high school and saw first hand how Tilmon’s foul issues have followed him.
“He was so much stronger than everyone,” Smith said. “If he bumped someone it was a foul. If Jeremiah touched somebody, it was a foul.”
When Tilmon was playing for the St. Louis Eagles AAU team, Corey Frazier, then an assistant coach, conducted a drill that only included Tilmon and smaller guards. Tilmon would stand around the free-throw line as Frazier sent his guards one at a time from just behind the three-point line toward Tilmon and the basket.
The idea: Frazier wanted Tilmon to start backing up once the guards were within reaching distance of him, so that, ideally, when Tilmon jumped up to block a guard’s shot, there was enough distance between Tilmon’s body and the guard to do it cleanly.
“You have to exhaust all possibilities,” Frazier said.
When Frazier’s team really needed Tilmon on the floor, the AAU coach would switch to a 2-3 zone in order to shield Tilmon from contact. Martin, a defensive-minded coach, prefers man-to-man defenses and has rarely utilized a zone while at MU.
“If I’m him, I would learn to politic with the refs,” Frazier said of Tilmon. “Try to talk your way out of it for the next one. Do it in a nice way and try and be like, ‘Ref, I’m working hard. Am I doing this too much?’ They’ll tell you what to do, (and) you have to listen.”
Rather than continue to act shocked, as he did all of last season, Tilmon said earlier this year that he would smile and laugh when referees called him for a foul. But that approach has changed recently. He smacked the floor after being called for his fifth foul at South Carolina and quickly glanced at officials every time they blew their whistles during the Alabama game, even if he wasn’t near the ball.
These are the signs of mental fatigue that emerge when a player spends six years battling foul trouble. Multiple coaches have tried and failed to properly address Tilmon’s greatest weakness, and now it might only be up to him to fix it.