Let’s talk about what Michigan State Spartans junior forward/center Xavier Tillman is doing this season, and the effect he’s had on the basketball team’s success. After getting off to a slow start in the first few games this season, Tillman has really ramped up his play since the Virginia Tech loss.
We will get into Tillman’s individual performance so far this season momentarily, but first here is a quick recap of where the team as a whole currently stands. Michigan State was throttled by 29 points by the Purdue Boilermakers on Sunday, which has raised some questions about the team. In my personal opinion, there is no reason to panic, as this team was absolutely humming prior to last weekend’s difficult road matchup, winning its previous eight games in a row. MSU is still atop the Big Ten standings at 5-1, and is a respectable 13-4 overall.
With all of that said, it’s painfully obvious that Michigan State lacks a third scoring threat right now. It’s the Cassius Winston and Xavier Tillman show, and when those two are struggling, like they did against Purdue, then the Spartans become extremely vulnerable. This makes Tillman and Winston even more valuable to their team, but is also something head coach Tom Izzo needs to figure out as soon as possible if this team has championship aspirations.
Let’s illustrate just how effective Tillman has been in the 2019-2020 season. Even just looking at high-level statistics, it’s easy to be impressed by the numbers. Tillman averages a double-double every game, with 13.9 points and 10.1 rebounds per game. He also averages 2.9 assists, 2.2 blocks and 1.1 steals per game. In terms of shooting, Tillman is making 55.6 percent of his shot attempts. He has plenty of room to improve from the free throw line (63.5 percent) and three-point land (32.1 percent), though. While Tillman is a strong post player, adding the long range threat to his arsenal will space the floor and benefit the team.
His per 40 minutes metrics are even more impressive. When looking at it from this view, Tillman averages 17.9 points, 13 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 2.8 blocks and 1.4 steals. His offensive rating is 117.0, which means per 100 possessions, Tillman is estimated to produce 117 points. His defensive rating of 83.0, which means estimated points allowed per 100 possessions, ranks 47th of all players nationally. His usage rating of 21.5 percent this season is a career high.
Tillman was slowed down by Purdue — every Spartan was — as he had just eight points, eight rebounds and one assist, shooting 40 percent from the field (including 0-2 from deep). But If we look at Tillman’s numbers during the team’s previous eight-game winning streak, then Tillman averaged about 15.3 points, 10.6 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 3.1 blocks per game in that span, while shooting 65 percent. He was also one of the few bright spots in a blowout loss against Duke, hitting nine of 14 shots for 20 points, along with eight rebounds, three assists, two steals and two blocks.
What’s even more impressive about all of these individual statistics is that Tillman has apparently been battling tendonitis in his knees for the majority of the season. This is the same ailment that limited Cassius Winston at times toward the end of the season last year. it’s something that Tillman can play through, but also something that can slow him down if he doesn't properly rehab it. It doesn’t seem to be a big factor right now, but is something to watch as the grueling season continues.
Again, I want to reiterate this point: While Tillman is starting to put it all together on the court, and Cassius Winston is Cassius Winston, the Spartans have to have a third player step up and provide positive contributions night in and night on. Be it Aaron Henry, Gabe Brown, Rocket Watts (who has a lot of developing to it), or another player, MSU won’t be a national championship-level team until that happens.
Basically what I am trying to say is Tillman is playing lights out this season and we should not take that for granted. His play is integral to the team’s success, but he can’t do it alone.