COLUMBIA – The face of the Missouri men’s basketball has started to sag.
J.T. Tiller, the team’s only four-year player and the one whose blue-collar play best represents Missouri’s style, hasn’t been himself since the start of the Big 12 Conference season Jan. 9. In Missouri’s three conference games, Tiller has collected more of the bad statistics than the good ones, such as his 11 turnovers compared to five assists.
Tiller hasn’t had much luck during the stretch, particularly evident in a key play at the end of Missouri’s 66-61 loss at Oklahoma on Saturday, the Tigers’ first Big 12 defeat. With Missouri (14-4, 2-1 Big 12) down two points and 16 seconds left, Tiller stole the ball off Oklahoma’s inbounds pass while falling to the ground. He was whistled for traveling, a questionable call considering Tiller didn’t look to have full possession of the ball as he fell. The ball went back to the Sooners, who iced the game with free throws.
“I think he’s pressing a little bit,” coach Mike Anderson said. “…In the next stretch I think you’ll see the real J.T., I really do. Sometimes your senior year, you want to do something so bad it doesn’t turn out like you want to. It’s not because of the effort with him.”
Tiller has built his reputation off his defense – he was last year’s Big 12 Co-Defensive Player of the Year. But after Missouri lost its three leading scorers from last season’s Elite Eight team, it was clear Tiller would be counted on to contribute more on offense. So far this year, he’s averaging 8.7 points per game, just 0.3 points more than last season. Tiller has been particularly cold during conference play, scoring a combined 17 points in three games on just 5-of-17 shooting.
“I think I was putting a lot of pressure on myself,” Tiller said. “After talking to all the coaches and a lot of family members, they were just like, ‘Go back to doing what you were doing. You didn’t have to score. You didn’t have to press on offense. Just play your game and play with your instincts. That’s what you do best.’”
When asked if he would like to be scoring more, Tiller’s response was firm.
“No, not at all because we have scorers,” Tiller said. “I’d rather be like last year, I didn’t have to score, but I played an integral role in us winning. So I just want to do the small things, whatever I have to do to help us win.”
Junior Justin Safford said recently Tiller has held back on his normally non-stop harassing defense.
“I think maybe kind of conserving himself a little bit,” Safford said.
Safford also mentioned that Tiller, a senior, has been thinking about life after college lately.
“Actually J.T. and I were talking about it the other day, about the future and what’s to come and kind of said, 'Just live in the present,'” Safford said. “I think J.T. will be fine if he just lives in the now, takes it one day at a time.”
Tiller popped up on the national radar during the NCAA Tournament last year, especially after his career-high 23-point performance in Missouri’s upset of No. 2 seed Memphis. Before this season, Tiller was named a finalist for several national awards. His success rightfully gives him hope that he can play basketball for a living, a thought he’s been entertaining.
“Just thinking about maybe basketball in the future, everybody talking about him and stuff,” Safford said. “…You know, basketball could obviously be a future thing for him. But I don’t think he needs to think about that right now. Just take it one day at a time and he’ll be all right.
“He’s our leader and everybody follows him. He’ll be fine. He’s going to be OK.”