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Xavier Tillman - A man amongst boys

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The junior big man is poised for a big season and continues to balance athletic aspirations and family life.

NCAA Basketball: Big Ten Media Day
Looking into a bright future, on and off the court - Xavier Tillman.
Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

Usually every Michigan State Spartans basketball player has his own single moment, a play that defines his career, that lives on in highlight reels forever and that will be tied to his name for generations to come. You know, the Mo Ager dunk versus J.J. Redick and Duke in 2005, Miles Bridges‘ game winner his sophomore year against Purdue, stuff like that. For Xavier Tillman, this moment might have come fairly early during his freshman year. In a season that he mostly spent watching from the bench he managed to grab the attention with a play that probably more than any other embodies what playing for MSU and Tom Izzo is like.

In a game against Maryland a loose ball was heading out of bounds right in front of the Spartans bench. Tillman laid out, all 6 feet and 8 inches of him, trying to save the ball and gain possession for his team. He didn‘t succeed, yet the effort and determination shown drew a raucous reaction from the entire bench. Head coach Tom Izzo was the first to pick Tillman up and pump his fist in admiration. Legendary commentator Gus Johnson topped it all off like only he can by declaring: “Enthusiasm! East Lansing!” From that moment on, Xavier Tillman had arrived at Michigan State, he was a true Spartan. But even if that play should follow him around for quite some time and will probably find its way onto NBA scouting reports next year, it is hardly the defining moment of his career. Those come after the game for Xavier Tillman.

They happen when he seeks out his now wife Tamia, who he met while trying to set up a friend, and his little 2 year old daughter Ayanna, nicknamed “Yanni”, in the crowd. He puts his long and muscular arms around his love and picks up the little girl in her Kids Spartans jersey with the No. 23, Tillman‘s number. He kisses them both and in that very moment, all else is forgotten. There are no more rebounds to grab, no more plays to finish. There is only the moment of a man with his family, a family that has driven him to where he is now and that will forever be linked with his time at Michigan State. He himself didn‘t always envision it like that when he was a junior in high school and learned that his then girlfriend Tamia was pregnant.

A young father in high school

“I was a bit scared what the coaches might think about it,” Tillman admits. “But they were totally fine with it.” Fine they were but Tom Izzo still had his reservations. He knew how much the distractions of early fatherhood could impact a young person‘s life, throw challenges at them that they aren‘t prepared for and ultimatively derail their playing career. “It is a very unusual situation to be honest with you and as a coach but also as a parent I had major concerns,” Tom Izzo remembers his feelings when he first learned of Tillman‘s fatherhood. “But it brought a maturity to him and he and Tamia handled it so great. Instead of being a negative for his basketball career it became a positive. It became a motivator and he embraced it. His daughter changed everything in his life, he wants to provide for her now and give her a good life.” Back in high school, becoming a father might just have been the motivation that Xavier Tillman needed to become the player and the person that he is today.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-East Regional
All smiles at times but in the post Xavier Tillman means business.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

As a teenager Tillman‘s talent was always obvious. For two years he starred at Forest Hills High School before he transferred to Grand Rapids Christian before his junior year. He was a skilled big man with a deft touch and great versatility, big time programs like Michigan State, Michigan or Purdue showed interest in him. Some recruiting services even had him among the best prospects in Michigan for his class. Yet there was something that was holding him back – his weight. “I played at 280 pounds back then and you really can‘t play serious basketball at that number,” Tillman describes and remembers countless trips to Wendy‘s and other fast food restaurants when he was younger. “I didn‘t know anything about dieting before I came to MSU.” Yet with the new found motivation from the birth of his daugther in December 2016, Tillman arrived at MSU willing to do everything in his power to not only become the best player he can be, but also the best father. He did everything a mother would want from a father and that much more. He invested long hours, always found time for his family and made little Yanni feel like the little angel she was. Along the way the 18 year old Xavier Tillman turned into a mature, confident, faithful man, one who is wise way beyond his years. A true, loving father.

Yet there were still some concerns when Tillman and his two girls moved into the family housing at Michigan State University, just off the dorms where his teammates lived. It was a difficult time for them as they wondered how they would balance family and team life plus how they would adjust to the everyday rythmn on a college campus. “We felt it could be a problem and that we might have trouble bonding with other people,” Tamia remembers of their early days at MSU. But it didn‘t take long for Tillman‘s teammates to erase any serious doubts. Somehow all the players started swinging by the Tillman family home and asked if they could see Yanni. Especially senior Tum Tum Nairn, Josh Langford and Miles Bridges developed a true liking to one of the smallest members of the Spartan family and left Xavier surprised about the incredible desire of his teammates to be around him and his daughter all the time. Yet it‘s exactly that which embodies the family atmosphere at Michigan State, one of the biggest reasons a lot of players come to play for Coach Izzo in the first place. “They are part of the family,” senior Cassius Winston says. “We all love Yanni and she‘s one of our own. Whenever we can help X and Tamia out, we do it.” Winston volunteered to watch Yanni last season so Tillman could surprise Tamia with a romantic dinner. When it was time to get the girl a birthday present, the entire team chipped in. Whenever she isn‘t on Daddy‘s arms, some other players picks her up and brings a smile to her face.

Getting better through hard work

Tillman is incredibly thankful for the way his teammates have embraced his young family and he has found a way to pay them back on the court. The moment he set foot on the campus in East Lansing he vowed to put the fast food eating version of himself in the rearview mirror and become the best player he can be – for his team, for his family and for himself. He changed his entire diet, cutting out the “bad stuff” and relying on healthy options like granola bars, joghurt and fruits. He spend countless hours in the Spartans weight room until his body resembled that of muscled up mascot Sparty, only a leaner version of him. He did not get early results on the court though. “I worked and worked and worked yet there weren‘t any immediate results,” Tillman remembers the days of his freshman year, a season in which he only averaged 8.7 minutes per game. “I stayed patient though and that was the key to really coming around last year.”

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-East Regional-Michigan State vs Duke
Xavier Tillman’s hard work has paid off.
Amber Searls-USA TODAY Sports

Before Tillman really took off as a sophomore, he already flashed tremendous potential at the end of his freshman campaign. During the NCAA Tournament 2018 he played 19 and 22 minutes in two games after having a previous season and career high of 14. During an otherwise forgettable second round loss to Syracuse Tillman shined with 5 points and 12 rebounds, often outworking everyone on the floor and foreshadowing a development that would only gain rapid pace during the upcoming summer. His normal routine included getting up at 6 in the morning to make his daughter breakfast, then three seperate workouts per day sprinkled in between class work and family time. A vision board helped him stay organized, set goals for himself and push him on his way to earning a 3.7 GPA. Once the season started, Tillman‘s role increased in the Spartans frontcourt. But it wasn‘t until his fellow big man Nick Ward injured his hand late in the season that Xavier really rose to stardom.

“The coaches told me I have a decision to make if I want to just rent or if I want to buy,” Tillman says of the opportunity that arose from his teammate‘s unfortunate injury. “At first I didn‘t understand, I really felt bad for Nick. But then I embraced the challenge and went to work.” Work – there it is again, a trait that follows Tillman around his entire MSU career. But describing him just as a tireless worker wouldn‘t do his skills justice, as he quickly showed when he became a starter after Ward‘s injury. The Spartans switched to a more pick and roll heavy scheme and they relied mostly on Tillman as the roll man. He set great picks, found terrific chemistry with point guard Cassius Winston and emerged as a true go to scorer. Next to that, he provided strong defense inside and even more importantly on the perimeter. As a starter Tillman averaged 13.5 points, 8.1 rebounds, 1.4 assists and 1.7 blocks per game while shooting 60.2 percent from the floor. He became a key component of MSU‘s magical run to the Final Four, especially in an Elite Eight matchup with the vaunted Duke Blue Devils and a certain freshman phenom named Zion Williamson.

Taking down Duke & Zion

All season nobody seemed to be able to stop Williamson, an incredible, suffocating force of nature with a jumping ability derived from the heavens. Neither could Michigan State as Zion posted 24 points and 14 rebounds, yet it was Tillman who atleast limited the Duke superstar and forced him into five turnovers. He also almost matched his counterpart by having the best offensive game of his entire college career. He fought with a vengance on the boards, ran the floor like a wing and finished drop offs with authority. In the end he scored a career high 19 points, grabbed 9 boards and got his hands on even more balls with 3 steals and 2 blocks. The highlight of his night was a breakaway dunk over Javin DeLaurier, certainly a play that challenges his dive against Maryland for the most spectacular in Tillman‘s career. Even with that monumental victory for the program in the bag, the Spartans came up short in the Final Four by losing in the semifinals to the Texas Tech Red Raiders a week later. The feeling though was that this run might have only been a preview of what‘s to come this season. It certainly looks like it was for Tillman.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-East Regional-Michigan State vs Duke
Xavier Tillman dunked all over the Duke Blue Devils.
Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

“It all started with me being in better shape,” Tillman says. “I could grab rebounds that I couldn‘t get before, I could dunk a lot more, I didn‘t get tired and overall I just felt stronger. I wanted people to know that Xavier Tillman is on the court.” The Final Four showed him though that there is still another level to get to. “We lost to a good Texas Tech team but I also think that we could have played a lot better,” the 6-8 junior says. “What I remember most is how they had a lot of seniors and guys who were physically stronger. We spent a lot of time in the weight room this summer and we will be ready come next year.” There isn‘t any doubt that Tillman will be ready, he has proven that grueling summer workouts come natural to him, even if he had certainly some other things to think about this past offseason. In May he got married to his high school sweetheart Tamia and both of them went on a cruise in the Carribean during their honeymoon. Randomly they ran into Tillman‘s former teammate Tum Tum Nairn in the Bahamas who immediately took them on a sightseeing tour through his hometown. It proved that Spartan family values also travel well.

While he took some time off and “ate very well” during his honeymoon, Tillman says he is already back to his preferred playing weight of 237 pounds. He also made a great effort to become a better post player, a better shooter and further expand his role as the Spartans premier big man. “I worked on a lot of different things to be more versatile next season,” Tillman says of his offseason workouts. “Being more of a post scorer was a big goal of mine so teams can‘t just guard the ball screen. I improved my footwork, my moves, my reads. Overall I just have found a lot more strength in the post.” Tillman says that he has set himself some individual goals, like becoming an academic All American, making a first or second All Big Ten team and becoming a better leader. He certainly has found his way onto many NBA Draft lists already as the professional scouts love his versatility and ability to switch effortlessly. And of course, above all, looms the Spartans goal of winning a National Championship.

Yet even if none of these things come to fruition, Xavier Tillman has already left a distinct mark on the Michigan State Spartans program and even more importantly, on the people who love him. “I know that I love him,” Tamia Tillman says. “But when I see him with Yanni, doing the alphabet or something like that, I realize that I‘m so blessed to have a daughter with him, with someone who is so great with her.” The couple is now expecting their second child in February and probably have the same feelings they had when Tamia was first pregnant with Yanni. “It was a big deal but in the end we were just so happy,” Tillman remembers the time when they first learned that they would become parents in high school. “Tamia and I treat people with love and the utmost respect and to share those feelings with our own child, there is nothing better than that. She‘s going to feel like the most important person in the world.“ Actually by next February, one of the two most important persons in the world.

And both of them will share many more memorable moments with their father in the future, way more special than some loose ball against Maryland could ever be...