Missouri men's basketball coach Cuonzo Martin doesn't hide his expectations for Jeremiah Tilmon.
While speaking with reporters Wednesday morning at Mizzou Arena, Martin called the Tigers’ junior standout the “biggest key” for the upcoming season.
Tilmon, a 6-foot-11 center who averaged a career-high 10.1 points and 5.9 rebounds last year, took on a heavily-expanded role as a sophomore after Jontay Porter tore his right anterior cruciate ligament and medial collateral ligament during a preseason, closed-door scrimmage.
The anticipation of Tilmon’s increased contributions make the East St. Louis, Illinois, native a can’t-miss Tiger.
“It’s just hard for one guy to guard Jeremiah,” Martin said. “Now the next part is I think he improved in dealing with double teams. ... He has to continue to improve as a decision maker, in traffic and tough situations because they run guys at him.”
Tilmon originally declared for the NBA Draft on April 15, but he returned to school less than a month later.
Martin said in May that Tilmon received “great feedback” from professional scouts about many facets of his game.
One lingering difficulty for Tilmon is how often he finds himself in foul trouble. Through his first two years, Tilmon tallied 232 fouls and had an average of four fouls per game.
Although Tilmon fouled out in 10 games last season, the same amount from his freshman year, he cut down his foul total from his freshman season, though it may not have felt like it at times. Last season, Tilmon picked up 111 fouls, down 10 from his freshman total of 121.
Tilmon missed three weeks of summer workouts with a back injury, but Martin said he has recovered and participated in the final week of practices.
While training with the Tigers this summer, Tilmon maintained a focus on limiting his foul trouble and not being affected by how any game is officiated.
“And then of course on the defensive side of it, having the energy, the passion and the level of not necessarily toughness but not worrying about how the game's officiated,” Martin said about Tilmon dealing with foul issues. “That's not an easy thing to do. What he has to do is allow himself to let go and say, ‘Man, this is how I’m playing the game. However they officiate is how they officiate.’ We spent a lot of time between the end of the season and even in the summertime talking to officials.”
In conversations with referees, Martin pointed out that plays involving Tilmon have to be called evenly.
Tilmon has proven to be a force in the post because of his physicality and 252-pound body, as well as his footwork.
‘You have to officiate him and call it both ways because you watch a lot of film and Jeremiah gets pushed in the back, gets bumped in the back,” Martin said. “There’s a lot that takes place but because he's so physical and he's not easily moved, oftentimes they don't make the call.”
Along with improving his scoring and rebound total as Missouri’s true post presence in his second year at Missouri, Tilmon improved his free-throw shooting to 68% from 52% his freshman year.
About two weeks ago when local media got the chance to speak with a handful of Tiger players, plenty pointed to Dru Smith as one of the Tigers’ leaders.
The redshirt junior transfer from Evansville was forced by NCAA rules to sit out last season after switching programs. This year, he’s poised to make a big impact. Smith’s leadership skills remind Martin of former Tiger Kassius Robertson, who recently played for the Charlotte Hornets’ NBA Summer League team.
“Not a big talker, he’s not that type of guy,” Martin said of Smith. “But just the work, the presence, the business-like approach, I think that's always good especially for the young guys, like when (Xavier Pinson) and those guys come in, you see a guy that’s been in college, been in the program, had a very successful college coach in Marty Simmons at Evansville.
“So he understands how hard you need to play, play as a team, little things you need to do to be successful.”
The last addition to Missouri’s roster, 7-foot center Axel Okongo, should arrive in Columbia later this week.
Okongo last played for Northwest Junior College in Wyoming for two seasons. Martin added that his newest big man, originally from Saacy-sur-Marne, France, has been finishing a class he couldn’t take at MU.
Once course work is complete, Okongo will move to mid-Missouri.
Martin said the team is trying to attain a waiver for Okongo to retain two years of college eligibility after his visa started before playing college basketball at Thetford Prep Academy in Canada.
Here are some other updates from Martin’s meeting with reporters:
- Martin expects to play a deep rotation of players this season in the same vein of Auburn, Kentucky and Tennessee last season.
- Missouri’s nonconference road schedule, which includes traveling to Temple, Xavier and West Virginia, is an opportunity Martin believes will be good for his team and the program's brand. He also said returning to the SEC/Big 12 Challenge could be good for recruiting.
- Martin wouldn’t be shocked to see one of the Tigers' three true freshmen (Mario McKinney, Tray Jackson and Kobe Brown) compete for a starting spot. They’ll fight for minutes with everyone else, Martin said.
- Martin liked the first year of the new recruiting calendar, stating it gives him and his staff more time to evaluate talent during AAU competitions. The only downside, he said, is spending 10 days away from his team during the summer. Martin also finds value in seeing a prospect with his high school team, although that happens more rarely.