Missouri guard J.T. Tiller dishes out his trademark defense

Friday, March 5, 2010 | 12:01 a.m. CST; updated 7:22 p.m. CST, Friday, March 5, 2010
Missouri basketball player J.T. Tiller faced off against Missourian reporter Alex Ruppenthal in a defensive scrimmage Feb. 26 at Mizzou Arena. Tiller said he never underestimates the skill level of his opponent. The final score was 10-6, Tiller.

COLUMBIA You dribble to the right. Half-spin fake to the left. Then you’re gone.

With one of college basketball’s best defenders left frozen.

If you go

What: No. 2 Kansas (28-2, 14-1 Big 12) at Missouri (22-8, 10-15 Big 12)

When: 1 p.m. Saturday

Where: Mizzou Arena

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“I’m telling you, that double … the fake was crazy!” J.T. Tiller said, in a tone that sounded like a kid telling his parents about a chemical explosion in science class. “I definitely didn’t expect that.”

The frightening part about getting past Tiller is that he chases you down before you get far. But like a lot of things you dread, being guarded by Tiller ends up being a learning experience.

The sound of his feet squeaking gets louder as he catches up. Even with a two-step lead, getting to the finish line still seems impossible. But somehow you do.

Your triumphant moment, leaving Tiller in awe, is the only point during this challenge when the joke is on him. The rest of the time, he’s in charge. The joke is on you.

The rules are fairly basic. Start with the ball on the baseline of the Mizzou Arena court. Using the area between the basket and the corner, try to dribble the 47 feet to center court.

The points system:

  • Beat Tiller and get to halfcourt, you earn three points.
  • Tiller steals the ball, he gets two points.
  • Tiller stops you or you pick up your dribble, Tiller gets one point.

Tiller has to interrupt after hearing the last one.

If I stop you?” he asks, pretending to be offended.

Tiller — 6-foot-3 with biceps featuring sculpted muscles and sturdy, straight legs that don’t get thinner closer to the ankle — gets into his stout defensive stance by sticking his left foot forward and pulling back his right, feet wider than his shoulders. He stands an arm’s length in front of you and slightly to your right. This move, a common tactic for any good defender, forces you to use your weaker left hand.

He bends his knees to get lower than you because you’re four inches shorter, and he tilts his upper body forward. He extends his left forearm like a traffic officer ordering a car to stop, so his hand is directly beneath the ball.

It’s the look that makes Tiller perfect for a defense-obsessed coach like Missouri’s Mike Anderson. But when he’s right in front of you, so close he can probably smell what you had for lunch, it’s frightening.

Then, with a grin that is the satisfaction Tiller gets from making a fool out of offensive players, he asks, “You ready?”

Is anyone?

Three dribbles to the left and Tiller has the ball. 2-0.

First lesson learned: Dribble the ball in front of your body and it’s gone. Keep it even with your hips – or protect it by backing into Tiller – and you’ll last a little longer. Maybe.

With this strategy, you’re forced to change direction several times and exert all your energy to advance just a few feet up the court. Just what Tiller wants.

“I wanted to force you left. I figured you’d always want to come back to that right (hand), so I want to force you one way to your weak side,” he said. “And I want to keep pushing that way. And once I feel like you’ve gotten far enough, I’m trying to cut you off and force you to keep on moving directions so I can get to that energy source.”

You use the most energy escaping the corner or sideline, where Tiller pushes you. You have no control over where you’ll end up on the court. Your heavy breathing turns into panting after a few unsuccessful tries.

After you finally get within striking distance of midcourt, Tiller takes a chance and reaches for a steal. He misses and hits his hands on the floor.

Score 3-3.

A couple tries later, Tiller buys the half-spin fake. “Oh man!” he yells as you run past him. “Ohhhh!” Score tied again, 6-6.

“You know, it does something to your ego, (hurts) your pride a little bit,” he said later. “That’s why I had to start getting a little aggressive.”

A little aggressive? What was not aggressive about the first six tries? Had he been going easy?

“No, I was playing like I play,” he said. “I was playing like I play.”

Before the next attempt, Tiller says the words that go through his head at the end of games, knowing his counterpart will eventually fold after being worn down for 40 minutes. “Hope you’re ready to get these last four points,” he says, shaking his head and holding onto the ball instead of bouncing it back to you.

"OK," you say, sounding far more confident than you are.

"You ready?" Tiller says with his eyebrows raised, giving you one last chance to back out before he gets aggressive. Real aggressive.

He bounces the ball back to you. About 10 unproductive dribbles later, he throws his right hand and pokes the ball backward through your legs. You’re in disbelief. The ball’s gone. Bouncing through your legs.

Tiller palms the ball in his right hand, shakes his head and smirks as he walks confidently back to the baseline. Think he takes pride in his defense?

You know you can’t try dribbling through Tiller because you’ll fall on your butt. So you try to move diagonally down the court, considering it a success when 10 dribbles to the right move you five feet closer to midcourt.

As you move side-to-side, Tiller shuffles his feet and violently waves one hand in small circles, reaching in to snatch the ball when he sees a chance.

On one of the attempts, Tiller has his right hand on the ball before you even leave the baseline. He sticks that annoying forearm up against your stomach. It’s like a metal crossbar on a turnstyle, only it doesn’t move when you try to go through it.

“If they’re going to let you touch the ball … as close as you can get to the ball, the better the defense,” Tiller said. “That’s what coach Anderson teaches. Wherever they allow you to go, go ahead and take it.”

As your chances of an upset plummet, you fake like you’re going to bounce the ball through Tiller’s wide-spread legs. Tiller hardly flinches. He had already decided you didn't have that move in your arsenal. He barely moves his eyes, which stay focused on one spot.

“I’m looking between your chest and your waist because you can’t go nowhere without those two,” he said. “Just between your chest and your waist, trying to keep them aligned with me, … you’re not going to go anywhere without your midsection.”

Lesson No. 2: Of course you’re not. But you never thought of it that way. For Tiller, your gut is a foolproof indicator of the direction your body will go.

You hardly go anywhere at all after tying the score at 6. On your last try, Tiller knocks the ball to the floor after one dribble. He snatches it up. The game is over.

You’re relieved. Your lungs can relax, though they hurt for the next hour.

What did Tiller think of your skills?

“Not too bad,” he said, smiling. “Not too bad. I wouldn’t call it (Kansas State point guard) Denis Clemente or anything like it, but it wasn’t too bad. I can’t lie.”

Although Tiller smiles and wears a smug look when defending, he’s not too proud to make adjustments. At one point, he sets up a few feet from the baseline.

“I felt like you were getting a couple first steps off of me, so I backed up and just used my arms, see where you were going to go,” Tiller said. “Then once you made that move, I stepped closer.”

What, then, are Tiller’s weaknesses as a defender?

“Oh I can’t tell that,” he says defensively. “It’s a secret. I can’t let that out of the bag because somebody might see this story and try to come at me.”

You dribble to the right. Half-spin fake to the left. Then you run as fast as possible.

That move worked against Tiller, though it probably never will again.

“I can’t even forget it,” Tiller said to himself, still stunned by your move.

That’s putting it rather kindly. With a few more feet to work in, there’s no doubt he would have caught you. And taken the ball.

During the contest, Tiller totals two defensive stops and four steals  — actually, five steals. He lets one go because he thinks the ball might have gone out of bounds before he grabbed it. He’s a nice, fair guy.

Final score: 10-6, Tiller. Final score, without the points system weighted generously in your favor: 7-2, Tiller.

You’re exhausted as you get a handshake and friendly chest bump from Tiller after his final steal. As you ask him about his defensive strategies, you struggle to finish sentences without pausing to fill your empty lungs with air.

You felt bossed around by Tiller. He pushed you backward and pinned you into corners. You never felt comfortable because Tiller was either harassing you with that stiff forearm or slapping at the ball. Even when you stuck out your backside and hovered over the ball, you knew it wasn’t safe.

You were the one with the ball. But you felt powerless.

Lesson No. 3: You go where Tiller allows you to go.


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Matt Pearce March 5, 2010 | 10:39 a.m.

Good story, Alex.

(Report Comment)
Michelle Hagopian March 5, 2010 | 1:12 p.m.

Great job, Alex! This kept my attention through the end, and the video was an excellent addition. We need more stories like this!

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