At this point, you know the story of the 2016-17 Michigan State Basketball team: despite loads of talented freshmen, preseason knee injuries to upperclass big men Gavin Schilling and Ben Carter kept the team from playing to their potential and led to a down year.
MSU’s 20 wins were the program’s sixth-fewest in Tom Izzo’s 22 years as Head Coach and their second round exit marked only the seventh time they’ve been eliminated before the Sweet 16 during their 20-year-long NCAA Tournament streak.
2016-17’s struggles were excusable, but no such cop-out’s will exist in 2017-18. In fact, the Spartans will face the exact opposite quandary — instead of having one healthy post player they will have, if you can believe it, almost too much frontcourt depth.
In addition to Carter and Schilling, the Spartans have three-time Big Ten Freshman of the Week Nick Ward, and National Player of the Year candidate Miles Bridges returning for their sophomore campaigns. Even further down the line there’s Kenny Goins and the two incoming freshmen, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Xavier Tillman, to account for.
So, how does one divide up the minutes? Let’s try and figure it out.
Bridges and Ward will start at the small forward and center, respectively. The other starting spot will likely either go to Jackson Jr., who profiles as a perfect modern stretch-four, or Schilling, whose defense and rebounding would help smooth over the slightly awkward fit with Ward. Carter and Goins will come off the bench.
That’s six players gobbling up frontcourt minutes, which is a lot! That’s also a lot of quality depth, which is great! There is a bit of a snafu, however, but it is what the experts call a “good problem to have”.
With all the minutes taken up by those six, Tillman, the 6’8” four-star forward, is seemingly a man without a role. To be clear, it is not that he can’t play — he was Mr. Basketball runner-up in the state of Michigan, after all — but there are only a finite number of minutes to go around.
Which brings us to the heart of the Tillman quandary: To redshirt or not to redshirt?
In a vacuum, the answer is simple: redshirt. MSU has more than enough depth, so why waste a precious year of Tillman’s eligibility? Ehhhh not so fast. While the 2017-18 team might be ok without Tillman, the 2018-19 squad probably cannot say the same.
After this season, Carter and Schilling will both graduate, Bridges will almost certainly declare for the NBA and it’s quite possible that Jackson Jr. and Ward follow him out the door. Should all of that transpire, it would leave Goins and Tillman as the only two holdovers in the frontcourt and, if Tillman should redshirt, Goins would be the only frontcourt player with a single minute of real playing time.
Now, that is a nightmare scenario. It’s possible Ward and/or Jackson could both opt to return, MSU is already bringing in 6’9” Thomas Kithier in the 2018 recruiting class and could add another big, but starting Goins and a completely inexperienced Tillman is NOT where MSU wants to find itself a year from now.
Taking all of those factors into account, carving out minutes for Tillman seems necessary. Finding a role will take some shuffling, but it is not as impossible a task as it may seem.
There are a few things to consider.
First, Schilling and Carter are both coming off knee injuries, in Carter’s case, two. It’s possible, if not likely, that they take some time to get fully back into the swing of things. Tillman could help cover those minutes right off the bat.
Secondly, for as good as Ward was, he found himself in foul trouble a lot and only played 19.8 minutes a game despite having no depth behind him. Having guys like Jackson, Schilling and Carter should help keep him in more advantageous matchups, but his defensive discipline is a concern and minutes may be more available than Izzo would like.
Finally, Bridges is going to be playing a lot of small forward. MSU’s roster is very frontcourt heavy, which means that it is also backcourt light. Only Cassius Winston, Tum Tum Nairn, Josh Langford, Matt McQuaid and Kyle Ahrens are “guards” and only Ahrens is a natural fit at the three.
Bridges said one of his reasons for coming back was wanting to play more small forward, his projected pro position, and given the way this roster is constructed, he’s going to get his wish, which should open up even more minutes for Tillman.
Ok, one more. MSU is going to be really really good. They have one of the best players in the nation, a Hall of Fame Head Coach, boast a rotation player that is a legitimate 12 deep and are playing in what looks like it could be a down Big Ten. That depth will keep him off the floor a lot but it also will help him because there are going to be some blowouts and that is where Tillman can get extended run.
Barring injury, Xavier probably won’t see many meaningful minutes but the experience he stands to gain by playing in real college game action could pay huge dividends just one year from now.