Getting lost in the shuffle at a program as prestigious as Michigan State seems like a difficult thing to do.
Yet wedged behind a sea of established upperclassmen and highly-regarded incoming freshmen, a potential key contributor to the Spartans 2018-’19 season has managed to become an afterthought in East Lansing.
Luckily for sophomore forward Xavier Tillman, being a collegiate basketball footnote isn’t anything new.
Typically one would expect a four-star recruit, not to mention the top overall high school player in the state of Michigan, to receive much fanfare when deciding to play basketball for Tom Izzo.
But that wasn’t the case last season for Tillman when he enrolled at MSU thanks to both the figurative and literal shadow created by the other player in the Spartans 2017 recruiting class — 6-foot-11 five-star forward, and current Memphis Grizzly, Jaren Jackson Jr.
Ultimately, Tillman was forced to fight for minutes in a crowded Michigan State frontcourt that featured Miles Bridges, Nick Ward, Gavin Schilling, Kenny Goins, and the aforementioned Jackson.
Once those five players had been fed on a nightly basis, Tillman managed to only pick up the scraps, averaging 8.7 minutes and 2.8 points per game, respectively.
So why am I devoting 500-plus words about a player who barely managed to crack the box score? I’m glad you asked.
Because Xavier Tillman is about to have a breakout season in the Big Ten. And I’ll tell you why.
For starters, the 6-foot-8 Grand Rapids, Mich. native is only a year removed from sifting through a sea of scholarship offers from the likes of Purdue, Notre Dame, Marquette, Illinois, and Kentucky.
He’s also the same player who earned those offers by doing things like this:
And also this:
It’s pretty easy to forget how strong and developed he was as a high school senior, a rare feat for many a forward coming into the Big Ten. But as those highlight packages above show, Tillman had a Power Five conference frame from the moment he stepped foot onto campus.
On top of that, he displayed a quickness and basketball IQ that’s equally uncommon for a young basketball player of his frame, as it’s usually easier to get by just using your raw strength to plow through undersized opponents.
Assuming he’s used his year on campus and brief cameos in game action to not only sustain, but improve upon those natural talents, Tillman could very well be poised to rattle some bones and shatter some rims at the Breslin Student Event Center in 2018-’19.
Even more so, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Miles Bridges have left East Lansing for the greener pastures of the NBA, while graduated senior Gavin Schilling is off to Germany to ply his trade, meaning the Spartans frontcourt is suddenly a lot less crowded.
And while Izzo will once welcome a talented freshmen class to campus, the crown jewel being fellow Grand Rapids-native and four-star forward Marcus Bingham Jr., this isn’t new, as, you know, it is Michigan State and Izzo is always going to get good players.
What that means for Tillman is that while competition for playing time will once again exist in East Lansing, he’ll find himself the hunted instead of the hunter. And while he’ll have those talented freshmen breathing down his neck and the still-established upperclassmen to contend with, his natural skills could, and should, add up to a young man that’s ready to fight for his corner.
All of this — the natural skills, the year of development, and the hunger to contribute, add up to a player who’s ready to be a force to be reckoned with.
So why is it that I think Xavier Tillman is poised to have a breakout season in the Big Ten?
Because he’s damn good. And his time is now.