The Braggin’ Rights debuts for Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin, Missouri freshman Jeremiah Tilmon and Illinois freshman Mark Smith are a thing of the past.
All became participants in the longtime rivalry Saturday night before a capacity crowd of 21,289 at Scottrade Center, where the Illini sizzled in the first half and then shrugged off a poor second half to defeat turnover-plagued Missouri 70-64 for their 25th win in 37 games in St. Louis.
Smith, a 6-foot-4 guard from Edwardsville, finished with 11 points and two steals in 25 minutes, connecting on 4 of 7 shots from the field. Tilmon, a 6-10 center from East St. Louis, had seven points, seven rebounds, two blocks and two steals in 32 minutes. Tilmon was 3 of 5 from the field.
The game marked another stage in the development of Smith and Tilmon, who only last season were rivals in the friendly gymnasiums of the Southwestern Conference.
Smith, who was Mr. Basketball in the state as a senior, was dazzling out of the gate with an assist on Illinois’ first basket, by Leron Black, a short jumper and a 3-pointer out of the corner.
Smith’s drive from the right side led to a reverse layup with 3:20 to play that gave Illinois a 62-53 lead and was one of the bigger baskets down the stretch has the Illini nursed their lead, which had been 42-22 at halftime.
“Mark was terrific,” first-year Illini coach Brad Underwood said, notwithstanding a few coaching moments during the game. “I keep pushing Mark: He’s got to rebound more. There was a loose ball he didn’t get on the floor for. Those are the real little things. But Mark’s another guy, like Trent (Frazier). If it wasn’t Trent (scoring 22 points) tonight, it would have been Mark in that situation.
“Mark will learn, one-on-four, not to pull up and shoot a 3 over Jeremiah Tilmon.”
Tilmon, who committed to Illinois before being released from his scholarship when the Illini fired John Groce as coach and hired Underwood, was roundly booed every time he touched the ball or had his name announced.
It hardly bothered him. He scored in the lane for Missouri’s first basket and did nothing to make people think he won’t be a force in the low blocks for years to come.
“Jeremiah’s 19 years old,” said Martin, a graduate of Lincoln High in East St. Louis. “He’s really, in my opinion, just scratching the surface, as talented as he is. Jeremiah is playing some of his best basketball of his career.
“Some of the things he does at 19, you’ve got professional guys that don’t do some of those things. Just his strength alone. You’re talking about a guy that’s 6-10. He knows how to move his body, he has good feet, good hands, good energy, runs the floor. With him, you take one day at a time, but again, if he stays on the pace, he’ll be able to play this game for a long time.”
Missouri’s sports information department is doing its level best to assure Tilmon remains focused on the task at hand. He was not made available to the media Friday in a casual setting after a light practice and was not among the players the Tigers brought to the postgame news conference Saturday.
Underwood said he firmly believes Tilmon will play in the NBA in the not-too-distant future, a prediction Martin also shares.
Martin said Tilmon’s physical play is far better suited for college than it was last year at East Side. Foul trouble plagued Tilmon much of the season.
“When you look at him in high school, he got a lot of fouls,” said Martin, whose main concern Saturday was 21 turnovers committed by the Tigers (10-3).
“One thing about a guy who’s 6-10, 250 pounds in high school ... you just bump a guy and whether it’s a legit call or not, it’s probably going to be a foul on you,” Martin said. “So he didn’t get a chance to go up against many guys with that level of physicality and that size in high school, especially in this area.
“I would say a fourth of his fouls back then were because of being physical and strong. Another fourth was just youth. For us, it’s just a matter of him growing and understanding because really, it’s the first time in his life where he’s consistently been practicing and playing against big guys every day. You’ve got to get used to that. Most big guys don’t see that every day in high school. So for him, it’s a growth process, and he’s done a good job maturing.”
Tilmon also grades out as a plus defender. Sure, he’s big and physical, but he’s also athletic.
“He’s a good defender,” Martin said. “I think he could be a better shot-blocker than the numbers show right now because he has timing and ability to see it and read it. He’ll get there.”
A freshman no more
Smith’s road to stardom developed much later than Tilmon’s. Most people recall that Smith originally committed to Missouri as a pitcher. But he suffered an injury, began focusing exclusively on basketball and rocketed up the recruiting list.
Even Smith laughs at the irony of committing to Missouri for baseball, then playing basketball for Illinois, against the Tigers, in the biggest regular-season game of the year.
“This is why I came here,” Smith said after the Illini improved to 9-5 with the victory. “It’s something I dreamed about. It was exciting for me ... The atmosphere was great with fans coming out for both sides. I love playing in games like that.”
Martin chuckled when asked to comment about Smith’s decommitment from Missouri baseball to his commitment to Illinois basketball.
“The sky’s the limit for him,” Martin said. “You’re talking about a guy that probably spent most of his days playing baseball. You can only imagine what he will become if he continues to work exclusively on the basketball floor. What I remember is he was a wonderful young man. So I think he’ll do what he needs to do to be successful when it’s all said and done.”
Underwood said Smith is “not a freshman anymore” and that he’s “done some outstanding things for us.” But there is much work to be done.
Underwood said Smith’s most difficult assignment has been learning the Illini defense. But offense has represented a challenge, too. In high school, Smith could shake defenders and basically do whatever he wanted. That hasn’t been the case in the Big Ten. Smith is shooting 38 percent from the field (41 of 109).
“The defense, I’ve been adjusting to it,” Smith said. “That’s what I’ve been improving on. Every game, I try to improve on defense. (Offense) is a big difference. In high school, I saw the other team’s best defender. But not a Division I college player all the time.”
Underwood said in some cases he hasn’t helped Smith’s offensive development. Smith’s versatility and strength has prompted Underwood to play him at more than one position.
“He’s eventually going to settle in and be able to play either one of the guard spots,” Underwood said. “We’ve played him some at the small forward. But Mark’s biggest learning curve has probably been at the defensive end in terms of what we do.
“He’s got a tremendous maturity about him from the standpoint of understanding how important film is, the scouting aspect. You can tell he’s been extremely well coached in high school. He understands the significance and importance of all that.”
Smith isn’t seeking excuses for his offensive play and calls Underwood’s schemes “great.”
“Everyone gets open on the team,” he said. “You’ve just got to be confident, step up and knock down your shots.”
Underwood remembers the day he learned last April that Smith had selected the Illini over Michigan State, Duke, Kentucky, Ohio State and dozens of others.
“I was sitting at home watching on my computer,” Underwood said. “That was a big day for us. I’ve said this many times about Mark’s recruitment. I felt great watching him on film. I didn’t see him in person, being at Oklahoma State. But I loved him, his game and what he brought. Then when I met with the family, I met his mom (Yvonne) and dad (Anthony) and found out a little bit about his character and who he was.”
For now, Smith is having fun with the learning curve.
“It’s been pretty exciting,” Smith said. “This freshman year has been a lot of fun, a lot of learning experiences. I’m trying to improve every game, every day in practice. I want to be the best player I can be.”
More 618 recruiting
Martin will have another player from the metro-east on his roster next season when Belleville East graduate Javon Pickett joins the ranks. Pickett, like Tilmon, decommitted from the Illini when Groce was fired and is playing this season at Sunrise Christian Academy in Wichita, Kan. Pickett will join the Tigers next season.
“He’ll be a big help to us,” said Martin. “I like how he’s playing, I like how he’s progressing, I like his energy, I like his passion as a person, also.”
Martin also has offered scholarships to two metro-east juniors: EJ Liddell, of Belleville West, and Terrence Hargrove Jr., of East St. Louis. Both sat behind the Missouri bench Saturday night.
“It’s very important, especially if you’re at Mizzou,” Martin said of recruiting the metro-east. “You have to recruit the area. It’s just about building relationships over time. You’re not going to get every guy. Sometimes the fit just isn’t right both ways. But it’s your job to identify the talented guys. Identify them early, build relationships and go from there. You’ve got to put your best foot forward. That’s very important. It goes without saying.”