College Sports

An imposing center from East St. Louis, Jeremiah Tilmon is finding focus at Mizzou

Missouri Tigers forward Jeremiah Tilmon averaged 8.2 points per game as a freshman last season.
Missouri Tigers forward Jeremiah Tilmon averaged 8.2 points per game as a freshman last season. jsleezer@kcstar.com

Before bed most nights, Jeremiah Tilmon plugs headphones in his ears and closes his eyes. He lets rap music wash over him. He focuses on his thoughts, brushing off the temptation to check his phone. He feels calm.

Though he uses Headspace, a guided meditation app, Tilmon doesn’t consider this exercise meditation. He says it’s a way to slow his mind down, to regain the focus he sometimes loses.

Tilmon, a 6-foot-10 sophomore on the Missouri basketball team, credits his nighttime routine with helping him on the court. He finds he’s calmer when he plays than he was last season. He shrugs off foul calls and can move onto the next play.

“Whenever I get unfocused, I’m remembering those little cues to bring myself back in,” he said.

With a stronger mental game and a full season of college experience, Tilmon is facing high expectations entering his sophomore year. He’ll team up down low with Jontay Porter, a 6-foot-11 sophomore who went through the NBA Draft evaluation process this summer before deciding to return to Missouri. Point guard Jordan Geist said the Tigers have the best bigs in the country.

During practices, Missouri head coach Cuonzo Martin tells Tilmon that defenders must respect him. Unless he’s double teamed, he should score every time he’s under the rim. He dropped in 8.2 points per game as a freshman, and Martin expects more of him this season.

When defenders double team Tilmon, he immediately looks for Porter below the rim. If Porter is covered, he kicks it outside. Tilmon said this progression is easy when he takes his time, which his mental exercises help with, and Geist said Tilmon looks more comfortable in double-team situations in workouts this season.

He didn’t attempt a three-pointer last season, but Tilmon has also been working on his outside shot. He made a few baskets in a perimeter-shooting drill Wednesday in Missouri’s practice gym, though he also airballed one. As for his three-point shot? He’s been practicing, but he’s not sure he has the green light from behind the arc yet.

“It’ll probably be yellow,” Tilmon said.

His biggest area of strength is still down low. Martin said Tilmon is imposing, and his physicality makes it hard to put a smaller defender on him.

In another drill on Wednesday, three coaches stood under the basket and mocked defenders by slamming Tilmon with mats. Tilmon pushed through the flying barriers and snatched a rebound and put the ball back up for an easy basket.

“They’re too little!” teammate Kevin Puryear yelled as Tilmon ran toward him.

“They make it too easy,” Tilmon replied with a smile.

This physicality shines through in Tilmon’s best performances. Missouri went 11-1 when he scored in double figures last season. He earned a starting job immediately as a freshman and never looked back, taking the opening tip in all 33 of the Tigers’ games.

Martin’s problem last season was keeping Tilmon on the court. Tilmon fouled out 10 times last year and averaged 3.66 personal fouls per game. To combat the fouling issue, Martin is very strict with his big-man in practice.

“Because he plays hard and he competes and plays a physical brand, I call fouls on him in practice, even when he doesn’t foul,” the coach said. “If he’s looking too hard it’s a foul.”

Tilmon’s mental exercises have helped with the fouling, too, he said. He worries less about whether an opponent will score on him and is more conscious of his body and hand position.

“He’s still the aggressive Jeremiah that we all know and love, and I don’t think that will ever change,” Porter said. “The main thing that’s improved is his mental strength.”

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