Over the previous two seasons, Michigan State forward Xavier Tillman did so many amazing things, it’s hard to think much about the little things he did for the team. Now that Tillman plays for the Memphis Grizzlies, those little things look a lot bigger.
Tillman could have been a senior on this year’s MSU team, something that may well have had the team sitting comfortably inside the top-five in the country. To be clear, though, that’s not to say he made the wrong decision. As is evident by his debut performance Sunday night, scoring six points in 17 minutes coming off the bench.
But Tillman’s absence on the Michigan State roster, or more importantly the inability to come remotely close to replacing him, has been the biggest key in the Spartans’ struggles. On both ends of the court MSU desperately needs a post presence. Without one, the MSU guards, trying to fill new roles of their own, will be left to fend for themselves against a conference loaded with dominant defenses.
The offense may be the hardest hit. Last season Tillman averaged 13.7 points, almost exclusively in the paint, and 2.7 offensive rebounds. This year those points are nearly being replicated by Joey Hauser’s 12.3. The huge difference, however, is Hauser is most effective with his jump shot outside of the post. The next highest average point total by a forward is Malik Hall’s 6.3, but similarly, Hall is a versatile forward who steps out as much as anything.
Pure post players like Julius Marble, Thomas Kithier, Marcus Bingham Jr. and Mady Sissoko all average below five points and don’t combine to reach Tillman’s near 14 points.
But it’s not just about the points those players score. Tillman could play a big role for the team even if he wasn’t scoring. That’s because his mere presence in the game shifted the gravity of the opposing defense. Teams were forced to not only glue their best post defender on Tillman, they’d often have to be prepared to double. If nothing else, this would allow guards and wings to play on an island, something players like Aaron Henry and Rocket Watts specifically would benefit from.
Instead, bigs are stepping away from the likes of Kithier. This shift in defense is allowing opposing guards to blitz the MSU backcourt. Even when the Spartans survive that initial wave of defenders, there is almost always a shot blocker waiting in the post.
This has been exploited by every Big Ten team so far. The thought of what could happen against Iowa, Illinois and even Purdue who have truly dominant post players is scary.
Kithier has been given the majority of Tillman’s role. Similarly, Kithier is often described as doing the little things. While that’s true, he doesn’t get the attention from opposing teams. That’s for good reason, Kithier is attempting fewer than three shots a game and converting on only 64 percent of those attempts. Much of the lack of production isn’t necessarily Kithier’s fault. At 6-foot-8 and only 230 pounds, Kithier has the build of a wing and is often overmatched before even getting started. Marble checks in at the same height and five pounds lighter.
For comparison, Tillman was also only 6-foot-8, but a much heftier 245 pounds and freshman point guard A.J. Hoggard comes in at 220. Sissoko comes a little closer to the build to replicate what’s needed, but so far he has still looked raw.
Most confusing has been Bingham’s role this year. That confusion extends to Tom Izzo who earlier in the season said “Marcus has been an enigma for me. I’m not going to make any bones about it.”
Bingham’s role has continued to shrink even as the season wears on. Against Nebraska he came into the game after Sissoko. Bingham is averaging only 2.4 points on 2.3 shots, playing fewer than 10 minutes a game.
While Bingham’s offense has been confounding, the bigger argument for his playing time is his presence on defense. No one will confuse Bingham for Tillman, where the latter had the ability to bang in the post with anyone in the country, the former absolutely can not. But what the 6-foot-11 Bingham can do is alter shots.
Michigan State has been gashed this year on straight-line drives — guards beat off the dribble turning into points-in-the-paint. Bingham’s proven shot-blocking ability can erase that problem to at least a degree. But his inability to stay on the court, for whatever reason, has negated that entirely.
Tillman, however, was never a shot blocker. But his presence on the defense was unavoidable. He would often take on the biggest individual challenges, guarding Luka Garza or Kofi Cockburn straight up unlike almost anyone else could, allowing the rest of the defense to be aggressive. But that’s far from his only role.
As has been noted before, Tillman was the quarterback of the MSU defense. What Cassius Winston was to the offense, Tillman was to the defense. Calling out rotations, plays and showing the ability to help in almost any situation.
In the words of Rick Pitino (and Amin Elhassan) Xavier Tillman isn’t walking through that door. Instead, the Spartans need to figure out how to play without their former star. Maybe Bingham can find his way back into the rotation. Maybe Sissoko will refine his game quickly. Maybe Kithier or Marble will be able to bulk up and draw attention of their own.
But until then, the Spartans are going to be living on a razor’s edge. Fans, in the meantime, can enjoy some DMX and remember the better days.