Nick Baumgardner Detroit Free Press
Published 6:00 AM EDT Apr 6, 2019
MINNEAPOLIS — Xavier Tillman is about three minutes into another incredibly thoughtful answer about Michigan State basketball and life and you stop to remind yourself something that’s often easy to forget in his presence.
Tillman’s not a well-seasoned life coach, skilled in the art of offering perspective, discipline and time management skills.
He’s a 20-year-old kid.
But there’s a reason why this gets lost during any conversation with Tillman. His life is beyond hectic. He’s a student-athlete playing for a power five college basketball team that’s under pressure to perform and grow every day of the year. He has a daughter, 2-year-old Ayanna and has a fiancee, Tamia Todd, and all the responsibility that comes with all of the above.
Yet everything about him oozes calm. Everything’s centered and measured. Kyle Ahrens says the word “cool” often comes to mind.
“Just look at how he balances his life,” Ahrens says. “He’s someone we look up to.”
He’s also turned himself into one of the best players on Michigan State’s roster and possibly the most underrated big man in the country. And it’s all happened, more or less, in a flash.
Tillman spent most of his freshman year playing his role. Observing and listening. He didn’t insert himself into situations where he wasn’t needed, as he wanted to make sure he soaked up as much knowledge about both basketball and his role within everything Michigan State does. And, over time, he grew.
He grew again in the offseason after Tom Izzo demanded he become a better offensive player. Which is why if anyone asked Kenny Goins over the summer a question about who would emerge as the team’s most important players this season, Tillman’s name was always on his list.
He listened. He learned. He grew. He internalized everything and stayed patient. And now, for Michigan State, he’s absolutely indispensable.
“There’s a crazy comfort level when you’re out there with X,” senior guard Matt McQuaid says. “It’s great to have that on the floor.”
Tillman’s explosion down the stretch happened out of necessity. Nick Ward, the team’s starting five all year, broke his hand. Tillman had already been playing major minutes off the bench, but his basketball family needed more.
So, as he does in every other area of his life, he delivered.
In the 12 games since Ward first sat out with the injury, Tillman’s averaged 13.8 points, eight rebounds and 1.8 blocked shots while doing his part to unlock another gear for the Spartans both offensively and defensively.
Tillman is in constant motion offensively, often setting multiple screens for star point guard Cassius Winston and, in turn, opening up the floor for scoring opportunities everywhere. At the other end of the court, Tillman has been one of the country’s best ball-screen defenders as an athletic big who is quick enough to move with just about any player on the floor.
Last Sunday against Duke, he drew superstar Zion Williamson. Tillman wound up with 19 points, nine rebounds, three steals and two blocks. Williamson, who will surely be the top pick in this summer’s NBA draft, did finish with 24 points and 14 boards. But he also had five turnovers, tying a season-high.
“I knew he loved to use his left hand, fake right and go left. He loves to be physical for offensive rebounds and stuff. So I knew when I needed to brace myself and I knew where he wanted to go,” Tillman recalled. “So I tried to limit him as much as possible.”
There’s so much about Tillman’s game that doesn’t wind up in a box score, especially on the defensive end, but there’s also plenty about his overall temperament that clearly makes an impact on this team.
Winston is known for his ultra-calm demeanor, the complete opposite of the always intense Izzo. Tillman is in the same boat. When he’s on the floor, everyone else seems to be at their best.
That’s not an accident.
“My freshman year, I didn’t know what to expect. So I watched. I watched how Miles (Bridges) and Jaren (Jackson) and Nick (Ward) and Cash reacted to coach. Sometimes they’d react with a high-energy response. I realized that wasn’t always a good thing,” Tillman said with a smile. “So I realized, in order for me to succeed, I had to be calm, cool, collected. I had to be an uplifter. Like Tum (Tum Nairn) was. He was really good at picking people’s heads up when they were down.
“That’s something I try to do. You can see it in someone’s eyes or if their head drops or their body language changes. So when I see that, I try to immediately walk up to them. Give them a hug or a dap and just say ‘hey, we’re good.’ ”
More: Michigan State basketball: Here’s what Tom Izzo said at his Final Four presser
More: Michigan State star Cassius Winston’s greatness explained in 23 seconds
Everything about Tillman’s life is organized and balanced. Down to the finest detail. He has a vision board taped to the wall in his bedroom back home. On Friday in Minneapolis, Tillman spoke with reporters while wearing one of Michigan State’s Nike-issued warmup shirts.
On the bottom left corner of the jacket, the phrase “Inspired by a crazy dreamer” hovers over a blank white space. Tillman filled his in.
It reads, simply: “Tamia + Yan.” That’s his family, the most important thing in his world. At home, he juggles being a college kid, a basketball player and a superhero
His basketball family is a big deal, too.
And just like at home, Tillman is a balanced version of standout center and Superman.
Contact Nick Baumgardner at [email protected] Follow him on Twitter @nickbaumgardner.
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