When Nick Ward suffered a broken hand back in February, many thought that the injury – the second long-term injury dealt to the Spartans – could be a devastating blow to Michigan State’s aspirations for the 2019 season.
But what the injury provided was an opportunity and one that has been fully taken advantage of by sophomore Xavier Tillman, who has gone from being one of Tom Izzo’s trusted players off the bench to being a crucial member of the Michigan State starting five, even after Ward returned from injury earlier this month.
Tillman, a 6-foot-8, 245-pound power forward, has emerged as one of the Spartans’ best players at both ends of the court, averaging 9.8 points and 7.2 rebounds per contest and just under two blocks per game.
Tillman’s performance this year, particularly since he joined the starting lineup after Ward’s injury, has drawn plenty of praise from his teammates and coaches, including from the man he replaced, who said the sophomore is a do-it-all type of player.
“He means a lot, he’s a big energy guy, defense, he does everything,” he said. “He’s a big part of our team.”
With Ward getting closer to being back to 100%, the Spartans are going to have some much needed depth in the front court, with Tillman and senior Kenny Goins, as the Spartans prepare for an athletic and physical LSU lineup in the Sweet Sixteen.
With Cassius Winston getting the vast majority of attention and praise from those inside and outside of the Spartan program, and rightfully so as Winston has put himself in the mix for National Player of the Year discussion, the Spartans’ junior point guard heaped plenty of praise on Tillman and how important he’s become to Michigan State’s success.
“Huge, he’s moving up there to maybe being the heart and soul of it,” he said. “He does so many things for us on offense and defense, sometimes it gets a little hard to play without him out there.”
Following a freshman year where Tillman showed promise, but averaged less than 10 minutes of playing time per game, Tillman entered this season as a key rotational player and emerged as one of the Spartans’ most important players following Ward’s injury.
Following Ward’s injury, Tillman posted a career-best 19 points on 7-of-12 shooting in a win over Rutgers on February 20th, and, on March 9th, Tillman logged a career-high 33 minutes and recorded 17 points, six rebounds and five blocks in Michigan State’s Big Ten Regular Season Big Ten Conference Championship clinching win over rival Michigan.
And in a season where he has been a key piece to the Spartans winning both Big Ten regular season and tournament titles and a spot in the Sweet 16, Tillman said that he’s still had time to appreciate the strides he’s made from his freshman season to the end of his sophomore season.
“From my freshman year, being the definite, off the bench role player, to a guy that – not necessarily they go to on the block, but the depend on me to make plays, whether it be offensively or defensively with the pick and roll with Cash,” he said. “I can definitely appreciate how far I’ve come.”
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