COLUMBIA — J.T. Tiller made his first start for the Missouri men’s basketball team in an exhibition game last November.
After mishandling the opening tip off, he turned the ball over, committed a foul and then air-balled his first shot.
That was in November.
With Missouri’s first and second choice point guards suspended, injured, or both, Tiller was the catalyst in Missouri’s 77-74 win over No. 22 Kansas State on Saturday and nearly led a severely short-handed team to victory over Nebraska on Wednesday.
Tiller scored a team and career-high 20 points against Kansas State and, with six seconds left, made two free throws to seal Missouri’s win.
“J.T. Tiller is a good player,” Kansas State coach Frank Martin said. “J.T. Tiller, you know, when he comes in, he attacks, he is an attack-first guard, and he played that way and it’s a credit to him.”
His 14 points against Nebraska were a career high before the Kansas State game. Tiller started and played 35 minutes in both games.
“It was just, step up or step down,” Tiller said. “If you can’t take the heat, get out of the kitchen, you know, pretty much.”
Tiller’s play has been one of the positives to come out of last week’s adversity. Five key players were suspended indefinitely after a fight at Athena Night Club last weekend. Beyond being suspended, starting point guard Stefhon Hannah could be out for the rest of the season with a broken jaw and Jason Horton, another point guard, was arrested Friday on suspicion of third degree assault.
Needless to say, Tiller’s increased playing time is likely to continue tonight at Kansas.
“Sometimes adversity can, in some kind of way, have a positive effect on the team,” Anderson said. “They are fighting hard and they are fighting together. When you are fighting hard and fighting together, these kind of things take place.”
Before the suspensions, Tiller was used mostly for energy off the bench. In 20 games, he was averaging 5.6 points and usually playing less than 20 minutes a game.
It wasn’t a surprise to teammates and coaches when Tiller broke out against Nebraska.
Anderson has said this year that Tiller is “tailor-made” for Missouri’s style of play, and that he wishes all of his players would be as constantly aggressive as Tiller.
Forward DeMarre Carroll said Tiller looked so good in preseason that teammates thought he could lead the team in scoring and steals this year.
“He probably never got in the comfort zone, but now you see him blossoming into a great player that many people really didn’t know we had, like offensively,” Carroll said. “So, he is stepping up offensively, and he is coming down and giving you defense.”
Missouri had a light practice on Sunday and Tiller needed it. After playing 35 minutes for the second straight game on Saturday, he could barely walk out of Mizzou Arena.
“He is putting in a lot of minutes,” Anderson said. “And he is working extremely hard.”