Missouri's Tiller leads the way with defense - KMOV.com

Missouri's Tiller leads the way with defense

Posing in a defensive crouch with no basketball in sight would be anathema to most big-time college players, even for a preseason photo shoot.

Not in J.T. Tiller's world. Despite averaging just 8.4 points per game last season, the Missouri senior guard is one of 50 players nationwide on the preseason Wooden Player of the Year list. He's also the top returning scorer on a Tigers team that finished with a school-record 31 wins last year and made a deep run in the NCAA tournament.

"How many of those guys average single figures on the Wooden list?" coach Mike Anderson said before Friday's first practice of the season. "That tells you what kind of impact he has."

Tiller knows he'll be expected to contribute more, since the Tigers must replace DeMarre Carroll, Leo Lyons and Matt Lawrence, three starters who combined for nearly half of the team's points last season.

But Missouri will again depend on a team-first, defense-driven approach honed by Anderson as a longtime assistant at Arkansas and later as coach at Alabama-Birmingham.

"The energy and hard work we bring to the game is so different than every other team," said Tiller, who shared the conference's defensive player of the year award last season with Cole Aldrich of Kansas. "We reflect the coach. And our coach is a defensive guy."

That coach nearly wound up elsewhere after a team picked to finish seventh in the Big 12 instead won the conference tournament and advanced to the tournament for the first time since 2003.

Anderson turned down an offer of more than $2 million annually from Georgia. He was also mentioned as a candidate at Memphis but instead signed a new contract paying $1.35 million annually, a $500,000 yearly increase.

Anderson acknowledged that last season's unexpected run caught him by surprise.

"If you had told me, 'Coach, you're gonna win 31 games out of 38 games,' I'd ask you what you're smoking, man," he said.

Joining Tiller in the Missouri backcourt is fellow senior Zaire Taylor, another defensive-minded player expected to increase his scoring load. The Delaware transfer averaged 6.7 points per game last season, earning a reputation for clutch play with game-winning shots against both Texas and Kansas.

Taylor called his backcourt mate a natural leader, on and off the court.

"J.T. has arguably been the best leader on this team since I came on when he was a sophomore," he said. "He brings it every day, whether it's a practice or a game."

A healthier Tiller could mean a more offensive-minded Tiller. The 6-foot-3 guard from Marietta, Ga., had offseason surgery for a wrist injury that hindered his outside shooting touch late last season.

Anderson called last year's team "remarkable," a group that improved as the year wore on and wound up leading the nation in team assists. The return to national relevance means that teams will no longer take the Tigers for granted, he said.

"The tag is on our basketball team this year," Anderson said. "The opponents we play this year are going to be playing that team from last year."

Anderson plans to continue using the nine- or 10-player rotation. He is already challenging big men like forwards Justin Safford, Keith Ramsey, Laurence Bowers and Steve Moore -- Missouri lacks a true center -- to step up.

"They want bigger roles," he said. "They have the opportunity to audition for me and my staff each and every day."

Missouri begins play at home on Nov. 17 against Tennessee-Martin. The nonconference schedule includes home games against Oregon and Georgia before Big 12 play starts in January.

Sophomore Kim English, a gym rat known to sleep in Mizzou Arena after late-night shooting sessions, said the Tigers want to build on their image as a team.

"We were just like college buddies hooping together at the rec -- but it was just in front of thousands of people," English said of the 2008-09 season. "That friendship made it fun to be on the court together."

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