COLUMBIA, Mo. — Missouri basketball coach Cuonzo Martin was the first person to mention hobbled center Jeremiah Tilmon after the Tigers' victory Saturday over Florida. And if you listened closely enough, it sure sounded as if the center’s foot injury has become an offensive addition by subtraction. At least that was the case Saturday, when Mizzou’s feckless offense turned into a point-scoring juggernaut.
Without the 6-foot-10 junior clogging up space in the lane, Martin’s motion offense found swaths of paint for Mizzou’s guards to explore in a 91-75 victory. With Tilmon still on crutches while the stress fracture in his left foot heals, the Tigers (9-6, 1-2 Southeastern Conference) gouged the Gators inside and outscored their visitors 40-14 in the lane.
“You have to be aggressive,” Martin said after the victory. “When Jeremiah was here guys looked for him in the post. That could make you be reserved or passive. When (he's) no longer there, other guys have to step up and dig a little bit deeper.”
Of course, Martin gladly will welcome his big man back in the lineup once his foot recovers — Tilmon is out indefinitely and probably won’t play Tuesday at Mississippi State (9-6, 0-3). But the Tigers hardly are crippled without the center from East St. Louis.
In Tilmon’s place, senior Reed Nikko made his fourth straight start in the middle Saturday and gave the Tigers 14 productive minutes. He finished with seven points and five rebounds, not far off from Tilmon’s season average of nine points and 4.3 rebounds.
No one ever has mistaken Nikko for the more agile big men in the conference, but the 6-10 center holds his ground defensively and knows his role on the offensive end. His range barely extends past the shadow of the rim, but he’s shooting a career-best 78.9 percent from the floor, by far the best among Martin’s regulars.
Reed, who came to Mizzou from Maple Grove, Minn., during the Kim Anderson coaching years and needed double hip surgery before playing for the Tigers, has impressed his head coach, especially lately.
“I think in Reed’s case he might go out and score 10 the next game or might not score, but he's always there mentally,” Martin said. “He's always prepared. He has a leadership ability. He has a pride to play for this university. He understands all of it. When you’re talking about culture of your program, he’s all of that for us."
“For me, if he’s scoring it’s great because now he’s a different player and he feels good about himself. I think the thing for him (is) you go four years and now you’re starting the last three games … and you go from being a role guy to playing and now as a starter. That's a different mentality. Now (he has) the confidence to know, OK, I’m one of the guys, I’m the starting center at Missouri. I’m going against the other starter. That's a different feel. So your approach is different. Now he doesn’t look over and say, ‘OK, I’m subbing in for Jeremiah.’ He’s the guy who’s being subbed in for.’”
Against Florida’s bigger front line on Saturday — a lineup that features 6-10 Kerry Blackshear Jr., one of the SEC’s best players at any position — Nikko had two dunks on feeds inside before Florida had two field goals.
“Teams don’t know what Reed is capable of doing and how much of a danger he is,” said point guard Xavier Pinson, who hit a 3-pointer on the wing off Reed’s assist. “He was subbing in for Jeremiah, but he knows his role is much bigger now. . . . He played like a beast.”
Mississippi State coach Ben Howland took notice, too.
“He did a great job against Florida,” Howland told reporters Monday in Starkville, Miss. “He's tough, he's physical. He rolls hard and scores around the basket.”
With Tilmon out, junior Mitchell Smith is playing the most minutes of his career as a power forward/center, shifting between the two positions based on Martin’s defensive matchups. Smith equaled his career high with 10 points in each of the last two games, the first time in his career he’s scored in double figures in consecutive games.
Martin has even found some minutes for newcomer Axel Okongo, the team’s first 7-footer since the Haley twins, Sammie and Simeon, joined the program more than 25 years ago. The Frenchman by way of a Canadian prep school and a Wyoming junior college had a couple productive shifts and logged his first stats of the season, albeit just a rebound and two fouls in six minutes. But he altered a couple shots inside and more than anything gave Nikko a couple breathers.
The Tigers will need their inside depth Tuesday in Starkville, Miss., against a Bulldogs team that’s No. 2 nationally in Ken Pomeroy’s average height metric. The rotation features 6-10 forward Reggie Perry, a preseason All-SEC pick, and 6-11 center Abdul Ado.
Howland said his team will prepare as if Tilmon will play, but he knows what he saw from the Tigers on Saturday.
“First game (without Tilmon) they were getting adjusted,” Howland said, “but second time they played their best game of the year. They’re coming here with an incredible amount of confidence.”