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Jeremiah Tilmon could define the Cuonzo Martin era, one way or the other

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The junior big man is the last vestige of the infamous 2017 class. In his junior year, it seems impossible to separate him from the coach that brought him here.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Arkansas Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

What was the biggest Missouri basketball recruiting victory of the past 10 years?

It’s a question that doesn’t necessarily have a right answer. You could go with the obvious answer and say Michael Porter, Jr. — after all, even if he didn’t contribute much on the court, he certainly drew a lot of eyes (and some recruits) toward Columbia, MO. You could also make the argument (along with one for his brother, Jontay) that he was coming to Missouri regardless of the coach. As long as it wasn’t Kim Anderson, the Porters seemed to be in. Maybe you’d make an argument for someone more instrumental to the program’s notable successes — say Phil Pressey, or maybe even a JUCO guy like Ricardo Ratliffe.

This writer would make the case — in case you couldn’t tell by the headline or the photo(!) — that there’s a strong case to be made for Jeremiah Tilmon.

The 2017 class was all about the Porters and what they brought to the table. Blake Harris, the other four-star of the group, came almost exclusively because of Michael’s presence on the team. When MPJ was ruled out for most of the year, Harris split for North Carolina State, where he later split for [team TBD]. CJ Roberts, for all the excitement he brought to a team that was still coached by Kim Anderson, stayed on board until he could find a better fit. Jontay was on board with his brother, so wherever Michael went, he followed.

Tilmon, though, was a bit different. Certainly the addition of the Porters helped sway the East St. Louis big man to head west, but it wasn’t a guaranteed thing. Tilmon had been hotly recruited by (and briefly committed to) Missouri’s rival to the east at the University of Illinois. When things didn’t work out there, the Tigers had to fend off their rivals to the west, the University of Snoop Dogg (sorry, I don’t make the rules, he owns them now).

In the end, Tilmon cast his lot with Cuonzo Martin. And two years removed from the Porter experience, with Harris and Roberts long gone, Tilmon is the only vestige from that once promising class.

It’s fitting to look at Tilmon’s Missouri career from this perspective, as a player whose time as a Tiger has taken an unexpected route. In a way, it mirrors the coach that brought him to Columbia to begin with. Cuonzo Martin’s hire at the University wasn’t the splash many fans were looking for after years spent mired in the Kim Anderson bog. In the end, he didn’t need to be— the Porters provided all the splash necessary, even if they would only combine for little more than one season together. Two years later, there’s a strange dichotomy that exists with both Martin and Tilmon. We feel like we’ve known them forever, yet could get a chance to really see them for the first time this year.

Those who paid attention knew that Jeremiah wasn’t going to single-handedly bridge the gap between single-digit wins and perennial NCAA Tournament appearances. Those who didn’t pay attention may have even realized it. But Tilmon’s strong frame, elite athleticism and St. Louis roots represented both an exciting present and the hope of a better future.

Most of the same can be said about Coach Martin. Outside of the most unrealistic expectations, most Missouri fans realized it would take more than just a year of Porter-assisted upheaval to break Missouri’s cycle of drudgery. Sure, some better injury luck could have helped things out, but programs like this only grab instant fixes every so often. For all the Porter shine, it would be Martin’s ability as a coach that would eventually get Missouri where it needed to go — definitely in the future and hopefully in the present.

In Year Three, the cloud of Portermania has lifted, and the state of the program is revealed. Jeremiah Tilmon, once thought of as the second fiddle to the NBA-scouted Michael or Jontay, is now Missouri’s lone representative on the preseason all-conference team. While his flaws are well documented, there’s a tantalizing element to Tilmon’s game. He’s like a sleeping giant (or at least a restrained one), waiting for full use of his faculties to realize the immense potential he represented when he made his way to campus several years ago.

Similarly, Martin finds himself free of the Portersphere for the first time as Missouri’s head coach. Once thought of as the man who facilitated when and where his future lottery picks would get their touches, Martin is now the man standing between a roster full of untapped or unrecognized talent and the expectations of a fanbase. While his shortcomings as a coach have been much discussed, there seems to be an unrealized step in his career. Martin is a natural leader, waiting to show that he can be more than just the coach who jumps from job to job. In fact, he can be the man to lead a program to otherwise unknown heights. At least, that’s what he’s out to prove.

And so, as Missouri basketball fans approach the 24 mark until the 2019-2020 season kicks off, it’s hard not to think of Jeremiah Tilmon as a representative of the Cuonzo Martin era thus far. An NCAA bid would bring renown while a snub would open the door to scorn. Either way, there seems to be no avoiding the idea that the two are attached in failure or success.