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March 10, 2009
Tiller the key to a Tiger run
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Last week, Sports Illustrated made Missouri guard J.T. Tiller the captain of its annual All-Glue team. There was certainly no disagreement coming from Columbia.
"J.T. is the heart and soul of the basketball team," Mike Anderson said.
"He's the key factor to our program's success," added DeMarre Carroll.
High praise coming from the coach and the team's leading scorer and rebounder. But there is little doubt it is warranted. On a balanced roster that Anderson has often called "the ultimate team," no individual is more vital to the Tigers' success than Tiller. For proof, look no further than the Tigers' four Big 12 losses this season.
In each of those losses, Tiller picked up an early foul, and sometimes two. At Nebraska, the junior guard was whistled for his first foul at the 16:58 mark. He ended the half without a steal.
Against Kansas State, Tiller picked up two fouls in the opening minutes. He had one steal in 11 minutes at the break and played only 24 minutes in the game.
At Kansas, Tiller went the first 10:57 of the game without a foul. But with the Tigers still in possible striking distance at 25-12, he was called for two fouls in the next 37 seconds. The Jayhawks ended the half on a 20-7 run and Missouri never got as close again.
Never was the trend more apparent than in the regular season finale against Texas A&M. Tiller picked up two early first half fouls, including a charge in the opening two minutes. He logged only seven first half minutes. He did not have a steal, get a rebound or attempt a shot. In fact, his only contribution to the box score in those seven minutes were the three fouls and three turnovers.
The sum total in those four halves: Eight fouls, three steals, seven points, five assists and nine turnovers.
Tiller, as evidenced by his co-Big 12 Defensive Player of the Year award, is Missouri's best defender. When he's not on the court, or is hampered by trying to avoid a foul, the entire Tiger defense looks different.
"He's the head of our basketball team out there as the point guard," Matt Lawrence said. "We work through him and his defensive intensity, and I tell him that all the time, 'Don't get in foul trouble. You're more important on the floor than on the bench.'"
"I think he's got to understand how important he is to our basketball team," Anderson said. "He's one of the better defenders in the country - not just the conference, but I think the country - and he needs to know how important he is to the team."
It is no coincidence that in those four games Missouri's first-half defense suffered. On the season, Missouri gave up an average of just 31.8 points in the first half. The offensively-challenged Huskers scored 32 by the break. But Kansas put up 45, K-State had 46 and Texas A&M scored 51-the most the Tigers gave up in the first half all season long.
Even more glaring, Missouri averaged 10.8 steals and forced 19.3 turnovers per game. In those first halves, the Tigers never had more than five steals or forced more than nine turnovers.
"A lot of our offense works off defense, so we like to see him getting all over the place," Lawrence said. "If he gets one early foul, or two fouls, I tell him to maybe take it easy a little bit, because even though he might not be able to get after it as much, fifty percent of his defense is better than most of ours."
It is advice that Tiller is trying to heed as Missouri heads into post-season play.
"Everyone is in my ear. They're just telling me, 'Step back because you can still be the J.T. that you are,'" he said. "I've been beating myself up, pretty much the whole season and especially after the loss to A&M, because Coach keeps telling me that I'm one of the factors that we need on the court to help lead us to that victory. I've just got to find that happy medium to get out there, pull my hands back, just get out there and play a little less aggressive."
Tiller's defense will be a key-perhaps the key-as the Tigers look to make runs in the Big 12 and NCAA tournament. Missouri has to have its best defender on the floor, not sitting next to Anderson.
"We talk about hanging our hats on defense, and it all starts with JT," the coach said. "If we want to continue to have success, then our defense needs to be the catalyst."
If Tiller does hear that early whistle some time in the next few games, his backcourt mate has his approach all planned out...unorthodox though it may be.
"I'll probably just yell at him and make fun at him, telling him that it was stupid. And if it happens to me, he'd do the same thing," Zaire Taylor said. "It's just our way of letting each other know if it's a stupid foul, and it usually is. He knows what he's doing wrong if he fouls in a certain situation, and he doesn't need me in his ear to know that."
But make no mistake, if Tiller gets in early foul trouble in either tournament, the Tigers won't be laughing for long.
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