COLUMBIA — It all began with a broken nose.
J.T. Tiller, a guard on the Missouri men’s basketball team, suffered the injury after receiving a sharp elbow to the nose in Saturday’s victory at Colorado. The broken nose triggered a chain of events that led to Tiller’s best game of the season.
One hour before the Tigers' game against Iowa State on Wednesday at Mizzou Arena, TV analyst Jon Sundvold, a Missouri basketball player from 1980 to 1983 who went on the NBA, approached Tiller about the mask he was wearing. Sundvold said he rarely speaks to the players and had only wanted to know if his Tiller's nose was broken. Once in conversation though, Tiller had his own question.
“What are your thoughts on my shot?” Tiller asked Sundvold.
“I don’t know many of the guys, and I’m not a coach, and I don’t hang around here,” Sundvold said. “But it was a good question.”
“I just gave him a point, and I said it doesn’t have to be tonight,” Sundvold said. “But in practice tomorrow, work on a couple things, and it’ll help the arch of your ball.”
Tiller, whose shots seem more like bullets that are more likely to go through the front of the rim than over it, has been spending weeks trying to improve his shots. Sundvold’s advice was simple, he told the guard to focus on getting more lift from the legs and shoot in the middle of jumping, not at the peak.
“It’s hard to change anybody’s shot,” Sundvold said. “But J.T. is such a good player, that if he could knock in a shot or two from outside, that will make him more valuable.”
That advice helped Tiller out of a season-long funk. He scored a season-high 17 points in Missouri’s 65-56 victory over the Cyclones (13-11, 2-7). Tiller, who is seen as the Tigers' senior leader, was able to do just that for the first time all season for Missouri (18-6, 6-3).
“I was on the bench just smiling actually,” sophomore guard Kim English said. “Just thinking, ‘That is the J.T. I’ve been waiting for,’ and he came through huge.”
The advice didn’t seem to help Tiller early on. He took an early 3-point attempt that looked reminiscent of a line drive in baseball rather than the rainbow needed in basketball. He struggled to do anything Sundvold suggested, and he finished the half with just three points and became hesitant to shoot.
“He still shot a flat ball tonight, but flat shots sometimes go in, but most times don’t,” Sundvold said.
However, with 11:34 left in the first half, Sundvold’s advice seemed to kick in. Tiller was left wide open at the top of the 3-point line with the ball. As Sundvold had instructed, he released the ball earlier, giving it a high arch, and after rattling the side of the rim, it went through the net. Tiller put his his head down and clapped his hands, as if to say, finally. It was his first 3-point basket in five games and only his fifth all year.
“It felt really good,” Tiller said with a huge smile just thinking about the shot. “Just the coincidence to happen to talk to Jon Sundvold before the game. He gave me a pointer or two, and to see the ball go in was very gratifying.”
That 3-point basket sparked Tiller. He began sprinting around the court like his usual energetic self. He made cuts to the rim and began focusing on his strengths, like making layups. He even had a couple key steals that led to fastbreak points to help keep Missouri ahead by three points when Iowa State was making a comeback.
“That’s how I usually score,” Tiller said. “Just talking to coach he said, ‘That’s the player I usually am, the instinctive player.’ When I’m cutting, even when I’m not getting the ball, I’m opening someone up.”
Although the rest of the team shot just 39 percent, Tiller was able to pick up the scoring load scoring 14 of his 17 points in the second half. Tiller said it was a huge relief to even just make a jump shot, and the success has given him more confidence to shoot in games again.
“The cards just fell in my hand today,” Tiller said. “We’ve had games like this, you never know who is going to step up, but you’re glad they do.”
All thanks to a broken nose.