This Missouri team boasts a weapon that is rare in the history of its program, one that few teams in the Southeastern Conference are capable of containing at his zenith.
Jeremiah Tilmon, a scary blend of speed and size and skill, saw just seven minutes of floor time Wednesday night in Missouri’s 91-73 loss to Auburn. He picked up two fouls in two minutes in the first half and two fouls in the first two minutes of the second half. He put up zero shots, grabbed one rebound and committed three turnovers – two of them on offensive fouls.
In general, game-changing big men are uncommon across basketball. That fact is doubly true at Missouri, which hasn’t had a player taller than 6-foot-8 average at least 10 points since Leo Lyons (14.6) in 2008-09. Tilmon, who stands 6-10, can dominate.
Wednesday’s game, though, wasn’t an outlier. In 11 games Missouri has played against high-major teams, Tilmon has played less than 12 minutes in four. Missouri lost three of those.
In league games, Tilmon is averaging a staggering 10.7 fouls per 40 minutes. He’s spent 60 percent of Missouri's SEC games on the bench.
Tilmon did play more than 20 minutes in four straight games before Wednesday, but his effectiveness has dropped sharply in conference play. That’s typical – the conference schedule is tougher than the nonconference schedule – but for Missouri’s big man, the happy medium between too much juice and not enough has been difficult to find.
“He does good in some games, and there’s just others where you gotta try to calm him down when he gets that first foul or second foul,” Jordan Geist said after a reporter asked if the team has talked to Tilmon about fouls. “You gotta try to let him play through it and grow, but we need him in games. He’s a big factor for us.”
His aggressiveness isn’t just his best trait, it’s one of his team’s rarest. Tilmon is an imposing force unlike any other player on the Tigers’ roster. Jontay Porter and Reed Nikko boast similar stature, but neither can bang around with the SEC’s best bigs like Tilmon.
No doubt, Tilmon has been on the wrong end of a number of bad breaks this season. After Missouri’s loss to Florida, Cuonzo Martin worried that Tilmon might get an unwarranted reputation for drawing referee whistles. His point had merit. The biggest guy hardly gets the benefit of the doubt, and there have been times this season Tilmon got less goodwill than that.
Still, Tilmon doesn’t do himself any favors.
“For him, it’s understanding that it’s not the officiating. It’s him going and getting better,” Martin said Wednesday night.
Tilmon’s penchant for illegal screens has been a recurring trend since the exhibition against Kansas in October. Some of his calls are simply head-scratching – after picking up two fouls in two minutes in the first half, he picked up his third 32 seconds into the second half while fouling a 3-point shooter.
Like most of Tilmon’s fouls, it wasn’t reckless or malicious. It was just silly.
“When you foul a 3-point shooter, it’s almost like you’re in elementary school,” Martin said. “That’s something you do in elementary school, sky up on fakes. That can’t happen.”
Nikko, surgically repaired hips and all, should never be criticized for effort but is perhaps the least-successful dunker in the SEC. Almost all of his counterparts in the post are just as big and twice as quick.
Getting Tilmon off the floor takes away one of the Tigers’ most capable scorers. His footwork down low and offensive rebounding ability are rare traits. They're useless skills on the bench.
Auburn’s first possession had a clear objective: Go right at the big guy. Its success should be worrying. Desean Murray caught the ball on the left wing and drove straight toward Tilmon in the paint. Tilmon, overeager, came down hard and picked up foul No. 1 just 17 seconds into the game.
It set the tone early. Tilmon didn’t play much longer but still looked wary for the rest of his time on the court.
It’s a shame, and it's also one of Missouri’s most urgent issues. For Missouri to be its best team, Tilmon needs to be on the floor. His teammates and coaches can assist, but Tilmon reaching his potential – and in so doing, helping his team reach its ceiling – is a personal journey.
– Daniel Jones covers Missouri basketball for the Columbia Daily Tribune. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-815-1787.