Jeremiah Tilmon has developed a reputation for Missouri men’s basketball as the centerpiece in the post under coach Cuonzo Martin.
Say what you want about the junior center and his never-ending struggle with foul trouble: There is nobody else on Martin’s roster who requires opponents more time game planning or presents more of a physical challenge inside the paint.
“You have to identify him on the floor,” Martin said. “He’s a guy that’s a presence.”
That is, unless the 6-foot-10 East St. Louis, Illinois, native is sitting at the end of the bench, where he was throughout Missouri’s 69-59 loss to Tennessee at Mizzou Arena on Tuesday night.
There he was, the main attraction of this Tigers team in its second Southeastern Conference game, forced out of the lineup by a stress fracture in his left foot that will keep him out indefinitely — a harrowing but all-too-familiar thought in Boone County.
"Coach Martin does a tremendous job with his team,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said, “and again, he's down a key player. That's tough on any coach, especially this time of year."
The timetable remains unknown, but as Tilmon walked around with a boot on his foot and crutches helping him along Tuesday night, minds naturally wandered.
This may turn into the third time in three years Martin loses his most important player.
Two years ago, prized recruit and now-NBA star Michael Porter Jr. scored all of 30 points for Missouri across three games in a season held back by his spinal surgery. He nearly matched his scoring total at Missouri in one game with the Denver Nuggets last Thursday, when he dropped 25 points against the Indiana Pacers on 11 of 12 shooting.
Last season, the Tigers lost Jontay Porter before the season even started, with the 2017-18 SEC co-sixth man of the year suffering a torn ACL during a closed preseason scrimmage, leaving Martin and the Tigers scrambling to fill a gaping gap.
Which brings us to Tilmon, who has shot 63% from the field and leads the Tigers in blocks this season while averaging nine points and four rebounds. Tilmon started the first 11 games of the campaign but now has either sat out entirely (Tuesday vs. Tennessee and Dec. 30 vs. Chicago State) or come off the bench (Saturday at Kentucky) in three straight games.
“I really didn’t know until today,” junior forward Mitchell Smith said of the severity of Tilmon’s injury. “I had seen Jeremiah in practice and his walking looked a little suspect, but I didn’t know until today J.T. was out. But it’s next man up. J.T., he’s in there supporting us, he’s got confidence in us, he wants to see us do well. We’ve just got to come together to play basketball.”
So how will the Tigers’ frontcourt minus Tilmon fare until he returns, if in fact he ever does? We got our first real taste of that against the Volunteers.
Senior Reed Nikko started for Tilmon on Tuesday and gave a fine effort, scoring six points and securing three rebounds in 20 minutes. Smith scored in double digits with 10 to go along with seven rebounds, while freshman Tray Jackson made a splash by leading the Tigers in plus-minus at plus-six, scoring 11 points in just nine minutes on the floor.
“I didn’t think they did a bad job,” Martin said, offering positivity on his frontcourt.
“I was happy to see the way Tray played,” Martin continued. “I thought Tray played great for not playing a lot. He was a little winded, but I thought he played great. He has the talent to score the ball. Reed got a thigh bruise early and he tried to go as much as he could. Mitch stepped up and made 3-point shots. He can make those shots. And I thought he was assertive with attacking the offensive glass as well. It wasn’t bad.
“I think the biggest key there is we have to get low-post production, especially when they have those smaller guards defending them. We’ve got to be able to get some production down there.”
There will be adjustments to life without Tilmon. The Tigers’ offense, held to 59 points in each of the first two SEC contests, will have to find production from other sources, driving and creating instead of tossing the ball inside to their standout center.
“We have to rely more on driving the ball to the rack and shooting,” Jackson said. “With him (Tilmon) being a post player, that opened up the 3-point more for us, and with him out, we have to rely more on dribbles, drives and kicks."
Martin said changes to adapt without Tilmon would be subtle.
They also could be season-defining.
“We’ve got the pieces and the tools, so I don’t think it’s going to be too bad,” Smith said.