Sometimes, I wonder if I would have felt differently had I paid more attention to guys like J.T. Tiller growing up. The senior is one of 50 collegiate players, and just four from the Big 12, to be named to the Preseason Wooden Award Watch List.
It’s no secret that the co-Defensive Player of the Year in the Big 12 (In my humble opinion, Cole Aldrich had no business sharing this with Tiller, but that’s another story….) isn’t on that list because he averaged 8.4 points, 3.6 assists and 3.4 rebounds per game.
Tiller is there because he was the best defensive guard in America last season, and Missouri’s surprise ascendance into the national spotlight finally got everyone to notice. Tiller’s senior season hasn’t even started yet, and ESPN’s Fran Fraschilla already recognized the Mizzou guard as the top “pest” (sorry, ESPN insiders only) in the country.
With his contagious high-energy defense, he’s the perfect guard for Mizzou’s nonstop full-court pressure, although it’s a shame that means he doesn’t normally reach 30 minutes of court time. Normally, I have trouble believing that D-1 athletes truly get that tired in a game with frequent stoppages and 2-minute timeouts every four minutes of game time, but Tiller’s energy level on defense can’t even be kept up for 35 seconds by a normal human being.
All season long, Mike Anderson preached about how Tiller and senior DeMarre Carroll were “the heart and soul of this basketball* team”. They’re the kind of players who are constantly on the floor and ready to dive into press row for the ball at any time, even in a 20-point game.
*The next time you hear Anderson speak to the media, count how many times he uses this word. I think you’ll be impressed, and it will certainly clear up any confusion as to which sport he is coaching.
Before the season even started, Zaire Taylor said prior to a practice that it was the first time in his life he wasn’t the best defensive player on his team. Those were big words from the Delaware transfer who wasn’t shy about extolling his abilities and talking openly about winning a national championship.
Taylor talked about how he and Tiller were competing to see who could get the most steals. But that contest was over almost before it started when Tiller took a 13-4 lead through four games. He ended up with 68 steals to Taylor’s 55.
But if Missouri is going to avoid a big drop in the Big 12 this season, Tiller is going to have to find some consistency on offense beyond taking care of the ball. His flat jump shot will never be on a fundamentals video, and he made just 10 of 52 three-pointers last season, excluding an inexplicable 3-3 performance against USC.
Still, he showed some potential, including a 23-point outburst against Memphis in the Sweet 16. Few guards go harder into the lane, and last year he seemed to have finally convinced the laws of physics to allow his layups to hit the backboard and still drop through the net. Plus, his wrist should finally be 100% after surgery in the offseason.
In the locker room after Missouri’s loss to UConn in the Elite Eight last season, the players left little doubt that the only fourth-year senior on the roster will be the team leader in the ’09-10 campaign. For a team that consistently applies full-court pressure and preaches its #1 focus is defense — despite scores that would indicate otherwise — it’s a role in which Tiller should thrive.