Tilmon plays Porter-to-be as Missouri swats Central Arkansas in opener

It became clear how central the sophomore power forward will be to Missouri’s offense in Jontay Porter’s absence as Tilmon tallied 16 points and 5 rebounds.
Missouri center Jeremiah Tilmon (focus) watches his shot go up in a 68-55 win over Central Arkansas on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018 at Mizzou Arena. Tilmon finished the game with 16 points and 4 offensive rebounds.

Jeremiah Tilmon became accustomed to leaving games with two fouls in as many minutes during his freshman season.

“They’ve been starting me with four [fouls] at practice,” he said.

But when Missouri men’s basketball coach Cuonzo Martin called the 6-foot-10 sophomore to the bench three minutes into Missouri’s season opener against Central Arkansas Tuesday night, there wasn’t a ‘2’ on his statline – there was a ‘4.’

Four offensive rebounds.

Tilmon cleaned up for his teammates’ sloppy shooting and added a dominant post presence that helped Missouri (1-0) to a 68-55 victory over Central Arkansas in the first game of a Porter-less 2018-19 campaign. Sophomore Mark Smith led Missouri with 19 points and 10 rebounds. Tilmon finished with 16 and 5.

“My coaches kept telling me go grab five more [rebounds], you got to go grab five more,” Tilmon said, but he was unable to match Smith’s double-double. While Tilmon picked up the guards’ slack on a lousy shooting night, they picked him up on the glass after Central Arkansas began double-teaming him when shots went up.

Tilmon will be a focal point as the Tigers venture into unknown territory without their other 6-11 sophomore standout. Jontay Porter and Tilmon were expected to create one of the nation’s most brooding front-court tandems this year, but after Porter’s season-ending ACL and MCL tears in an October scrimmage, Tilmon’s luggage is expected to double.

“It sucks for the team, but we’re going to continue to carry each other,” Tilmon said. “Everyone wants to say the season’s over. We’re just gonna ignore all that.”

The only problem with the added responsibility is a past propensity for foul trouble that kept Tilmon from playing important minutes last year. Martin said during the weeks leading up to the season that he blew his whistle for minimal contact on Tilmon to train him to defend without fouling.

“It’s hard though, because you don’t want him to lose his aggressive spirit,” Martin said. “He’s got this spirit. He’s got a big heart.”

The practice tricks seemed to work at least for a while on Tuesday night, as Tilmon made it through the first half without a foul before committing four after the intermission. His size proved to be a savior for the outside shooting-starved Tigers. They finished the night 8-for-26 beyond the 3-point arc. Players not named Mark Smith went 3-for-18 from that range.

“I would like to see more drives to the basket,” Martin said. “We didn’t do a good job attacking downhill.”

Missouri felt the effects of its impulsive trigger-pulling midway through the first half when Central Arkansas went on a 9-0 run to cut the Tigers’ early lead to 20-16. The first few minutes of the contest had been picture perfect – Tilmon controlling the glass, Smith dropping a pair of 3s, freshman Xavier Pinson showing off a flashy assist to Reed Nikko for a layup – but the sudden slump forced a timeout out of Martin. The 20-7 start was long gone.

When the Tigers returned, they went to Tilmon. He powered through the lane for a post tear drop to break the drought.

Moments later, freshman Torrence Watson splashed a 3-pointer to score his first college points and break an 0-for-4 start of his own. It also brought the lead back to 9 for Missouri and set them up to cruise to a 30-20 halftime advantage. Tilmon added an exclamation point to that burst by walloping a Central Arkansas shot into the distance, 20 feet away from its release point.

“I was just on my line, really,” Tilmon said. “My man wasn’t really a shooter, so when I saw the ball it just came straight to me honestly. I was hoping I didn’t get the foul, and I didn’t get it.”

Tilmon and other young assets thrived for Missouri, and perhaps none have higher expectations than Watson in Missouri’s freshman class. But the St. Louis area product out of Whitfield High didn’t start on opening night for the Tigers. The other guard spot went instead to freshman Javon Pickett, making three former Illinois signees in the Missouri starting lineup – Pickett, Tilmon and Smith. They’re all from the St. Louis area as well.

“And we all from the same side,” Tilmon said. “I wasn’t expecting that to happen. But it feels comfortable. We’ve all been playing against each other for the longest time, and now we’re all on the same team.”

Smith almost wasn’t eligible to play with Tilmon and Pickett this year, but a transfer waiver granted by the NCAA in the weeks leading up to the season allowed the sophomore immediate eligibility rather than having to sit out his first year at MU.

Pickett finished with 7 points, including Missouri’s first of the season on a corner 3-pointer. He said he didn’t know he would be starting until half an hour before tip-off.

Senior Kevin Puryear started and took the team’s first shot of the season from the same spot but missed, as often became the trend on long shots heaved up from the Tigers.

But Smith bailed out others’ shooting woes and started the second half with another pair of 3s – he finished with six of those – and Missouri quickly had a 10-3 run to open a 17-point lead. That would be the Tigers’ largest lead, matched once later and cut to only as low as 7 points in the second half.

Tilmon was the center of all the efficiency, Martin and Central Arkansas coach Russ Pennell both said. When the power forward was fed, his matchup advantage forced double teams and allowed him to either size up and beat opponents in the post himself, or find an open guard outside for a 3.

“You’ve got to be physical and you’ve got to have a big old body to play against [Tilmon],” Pennell said. “He’s tough and he’s a load. I would think Missouri’s pretty excited to have him.”

Edited by Adam Cole | acole@themaneater.com

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