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Tiller Turnaround Inspires Hope For TA

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Perhaps Celtics fans will find this description familiar: Mega-aggressive off-guard with million-dollar hustle but $1.99 on-court head.  Hard-nosed but often overzealous defensively.  Liable to cause mass destruction with any shot taken from outside the paint.  Strong taking the ball to the rim but an offensive foul threat as well.  Potential to be so much more than he is.

Meet J.T. Tiller, the man who prior to this season served as the Missouri Tigers' version of Tony Allen.

Over his first two seasons, watching Tiller was simultaneously tantalizing and excruciating.  On a generally confused Missouri team still sorting out the aftermath of the disastrous end to the Quin Snyder era, the youngster from Marietta, Ga., was one more enigma.  He endeared himself to Missouri fans at first with his fearless play, never backing down from an opponent at either end of the floor.  But too often, his inability to harness his boundless energy made him more trouble for his own team than for the opponents.

For every steal or deflection, it seemed there were several silly lunges that turned into reach-ins and bumps that drew whistles with his man three zip codes away from the basket.  For every acrobatic lay-up, there seemed to be too many times when Tiller's tendency to dribble with his head down led to an obvious charge or a missed open man.  He didn't shoot the ball well from the outside (below 30 percent from three), and he didn't seem interested in taking a normal lay-up either.  Every drive required a double-clutch or a windmill move in the air.  That he racked up 79 turnovers to go with just 93 assists over his first two seasons (and had an assist-to-turnover figure below one his freshman year) didn't offer much encouragement either.

But despite all the problems, it was difficult for Tigers fans to give up on J.T. because he played so hard. Even if he didn't always make the right decision, there was never any doubt that he wanted to be on the floor and would do all the work asked of him.  He showed flashes of quickness and explosiveness that could make him special if he could manage to keep his head up and his energy in check.

That's exactly what he did this season.

On a surprising Missouri team that featured more than its share of neat success stories in 2008-09, perhaps none provided a more pleasant surprise than the jump J.T. Tiller made as a junior.

A reputedly bright guy off the court, Tiller became one on it as well.  He took over as a leader on a young Missouri team that featured eight newcomers, including five freshman.  At the offensive end, Tiller kept his head up with the ball and the rest of his body under control, and the results came.  The stream-rollings of defenders who had been planted for hours decreased, and Tiller began using his penetration to find cutting teammates for lay-ins and dunks on the block.  He rose up as strongly to the basket as he drove to get there, reducing the mid-air razzle-dazzle.   Never was his offensive aggression more impressive than last Thursday, when he scored a career high 23 points on 10-of-16 shooting to lead Missouri to the Elite Eight in an upset win over Memphis.

While his shooting percentage remained a shade better than 45 percent (decimal points better than the previous year), he seemed to be taking better shots, and he even made himself a bit more of a threat from mid-range.  Though the three-point shooting never came consistently, Tiller looked more confident in his elbow and baby wing jump-shooting as the year progressed.  Serving as a combo guard in the Tigers' offense, Tiller had the ball in his hands more than ever before and assisted on nearly a quarter of the baskets his teammates scored with him on the court.  In an extra five minutes per game, he doubled his assists average to 3.6 per and posted his best assist-to-turnover ratio yet at 2.34-to-1.

And all that occurred at his less impressive end of the floor.

The Tigers' success starts with their swarming defense.  Mike Anderson's team presses the length of the floor for every minute of every game and relies on getting out in transition courtesy of turnovers.  Tiller did more than his part.  He calmed down the reaching and unnecessary contact and busted his gut to play defense with his feet.  Tiller focused on keeping his man in front of him and picking his spots to gamble for steals.  He led the team in steals and deflections.  Fewer upfakes got him off his feet.  In some 300 more minutes than he played the season before, Tiller picked up only 19 more fouls.  He drew the other team's most dangerous guard on a nightly basis, and most of the time, he locked that man up.  For all that work, Tiller earned honors as the Big 12's co-Defensive Player of the Year at the conclusion of the regular season. 

Though the Tigers' season ended at the hands of the UConn Huskies on Saturday, Tiller has no reason to hang his head.  He turned an immense amount of unrealized potential into effective basketball performance that helped make his team better by leaps and bounds.

So many times in watching Tiller, I've seen flashes of the Celtics' version of Tony Allen (as I know he was rather accomplished himself during his own Big 12 tenure with Oklahoma State).  The ability to fly to the rim but to do so occasionally without control along with the could-be-worth-so-much-more defensive effort of Tiller's first two years reflected perfectly the frustration I feel watching the Celtics' reserve. 

But watching Tiller put in the work and focus to make the turnaround that he has over the last year, I can't help but be that slightest bit more hopeful that TA will one day find the way to make the most of his gifts as well.

Thanks for a great season, J.T.

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