Twelve points and six rebounds are impressive, but Jeremiah Tilmon’s most important stat line Tuesday night came under the foul column.
In 25 minutes of play, the freshman big man, whose greatest struggle this season has been staying in the game amid foul trouble, ended his ninth collegiate basketball game with just one foul.
“He’s really just a presence,” junior Kevin Puryear said. “He really affects the game in so many ways. His footwork, being strong down low, blocking shots, rebounding — all those things — that’s why we need him in the game.”
His 25 minutes of play Tuesday night tied a season high and gave Tilmon the time to score a dozen points and grab a half-dozen rebounds. Foul trouble, as of late, has been an afterthought for the freshman.
Tilmon hasn’t fouled out of a game since a Nov. 16 loss at Utah, and the East St. Louis, Illinois, product was energy personified in Missouri’s 70-51 win over Miami (Ohio). When the Tigers needed a boost — which, frankly, was most of the night — Tilmon provided a barrage of high-flying dunks and one emphatic swat.
In the final minutes of the game, with the Tigers leading by 15 and a Mizzou Arena exodus well underway, Tilmon stepped behind Miami’s Jalen Adaway and, with one swoop, swatted the ball away — sending the Redhawks freshman tumbling to the floor.
The crowd erupted. Missouri’s bench jolted. Against a Miami team whose tallest player was 6-foot-8, Tilmon’s size, strength and footwork down low just wasn’t fair.
“He’s 6-11,” Puryear said. “All he has to do is put his hands straight up. He’s a hard guy to shoot over when he does that, and I think he has a really clear grasp on that now.”
Martin, however, was unimpressed.
“He still needs to be aggressive,” the coach said, before uttering that word, “aggressive,” three more times in the next 30 seconds.
The coach preaches three things — defending, rebounding and working hard. Tilmon is staying out of foul trouble, but Martin wishes he’d do more on the defensive end.
“I want him to be assertive,” he said. “I want him to rebound the basketball. Keep pressure on the other big guys. Run the floor. Do all those things. One foul, but I didn’t think he was very assertive at all.”
Martin knew fouls would be an issue for Tilmon before the Tigers started their season. In Missouri’s exhibition against Kansas, the freshman committed seven fouls in 13 minutes — to which Puryear asked, “How is that even possible?”
To combat the frequent fouls, Martin created a rule for Tilmon during half-court practices: No. 23 starts with three fouls.
It seems to be paying off in that department, but Martin never seemed too worried about the freshman. Earlier this season, questions of discipline were often met with a quiet laugh and head-shaking from the head coach, always cautious not to criticize the talented freshman.
Tilmon’s defensive aggression, it seemed, was not an issue in Martin’s eyes.
“Well, you talk about a young man that competes, he battles, he’s physical,” the coach said before Missouri’s first game.
The coach then added a reason of optimism: “He’s a quick learner. I think he’ll make the adjustments.”
Those adjustments — keeping his hands tight, not leaving his feet, positioning his body — have been made, but, Tuesday night, the no-foul mentality seemed to damped the freshman’s aggression.
Martin said it’s tough, because the big-bodied 19-year-old can easily draw fouls on both offense and defense.
“I want him to be aggressive,” Martin said, “but it’s a very fine line.”