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The Atlanta Celtics are one of the most glamorous programs on the amateur basketball circuit, which is why Mike Anderson, then UAB coach, watched them play many times during the summer of 2005. But instead of locking in on mega scorers, Anderson instead found his gaze drifting toward J.T. Tiller, a 6-foot-3 guard from Marietta, Ga., who was drawing scant interest from other high-major schools. "He was one of those kamikaze guys who did all the little things that add up to winning," Anderson recalls. "He played so hard and gave everything he had, and he had a huge impact on the game just from a defensive standpoint. Most guys don't get after it defensively during the summer, but this kid had no ego. He was all about winning."
Anderson was so enamored with Tiller that after Anderson left UAB to become head coach at Missouri the following spring, he asked Tiller, who was released from his letter of intent to UAB, to be his first recruit in Columbia. "That means a lot when you sign a guy twice," Anderson said. Now, three years later, Missouri is enjoying a remarkable resurgence, posting a 24-5 record (11-3 Big 12) and a No. 15 ranking.
Though Tiller is not technically Missouri's point guard, he is ranked in the top 10 of the Big 12 in both assists (3.6 per game) and assist-to-turnover ratio (2.33-to-1). Tiller is also arguably the league's best perimeter defender. He is ranked second in the conference in steals (1.89) and has shut down many of the Big 12's biggest scorers.
Every coach asks his players to do the subtle, unglamorous things that don't show up in a box score, but Tiller is one of those rare players who specializes in doing just that.
He is, in other words, the consummate Glue Guy.
"There are just so many intangibles he brings to the table," Anderson said. "He's the catalyst for a lot of things that take place, whether it's blocking a shot, deflecting a pass, getting loose balls, taking a charge, making a pass that leads to an assist. Then you throw in his character, he's a good student, he's become a good leader. He's just all about winning."
Glue Guys tend to be underappreciated, if they're noticed at all, but there is one place where they receive the utmost respect: On SI's All-Glue team. For the many ways in which he has held Missouri together during this special season, Tiller has been bestowed the ultimate honor in gluedom -- the captaincy of this, the 10th-annual All-Glue team.
Tiller has always fashioned himself in this role. That comes from not only playing on the Atlanta Celtics but also at Wheeler High, where his teammates included Sharaud Curry, now a high-scoring guard at Providence, and 6-9 center J.J. Hickson, who plays for the Cleveland Cavaliers. "I thought of myself as a defensive player coming out of high school. I thought that would be my way out," Tiller said. "Everybody else wanted to be the offensive threat, but I felt like for me to be seen I had to be the defensive guy stopping those offensive-minded people. I thought coaches would like that hard-nosed style."
Tiller has always played with extraordinary energy, which he confesses stems largely from his desire to quell the pregame butterflies he suffers before every tip-off. His high-intensity mindset led Tiller to commit silly fouls and costly turnovers early in his career. Anderson had to constantly remind him of John Wooden's timeless admonition to "be quick but don't hurry." Says Anderson, "Early on he only had one speed. He's learned to slow down a little and stay under control."
Tiller brings that same energy and discipline to his studies, a mindset he attributes largely to being raised by a father who spent 20 years in the Navy. J.T.'s parents were strict about chores (keeping his room clean and his bed made was a must) and even stricter about grades, so much so that when J.T. was in the sixth grade, they kept him out of a basketball game because he got a B in band. Though J.T. confesses he does not always keep his room military tidy, he has remained steadfast about his academic work, which has especially endeared him to Anderson.
As for the Tigers' postseason prospects, Tiller is trying not to look too far ahead, but he knows full well they will only go far if they stick together. That, he knows, is his responsibility. "I believe we can go far as long as we come with the right mindset," he said. "My role on this team is to be a leader on the court, be a high-energy guy and do whatever I have to do to propel this team to the next level. I'll take that role any day as long as we're winning."
As his father might say, Aye-aye, captain.
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