East Lansing – Maybe it’s fitting that Xavier Tillman’s first name starts with the letter X.
Unlike his more heralded teammates, the Michigan State sophomore forward tends to fly under the radar when it comes to reasons why the eighth-ranked Spartans are once again in position to contend in the Big Ten.
That, of course, leads to Tillman often being described as Michigan State’s “X factor.” On most nights, that’s exactly what the 6-foot-8, 245-pounder is for the Spartans. He’s shooting 69 percent from the field and averaging 8.2 rebounds while he’s also blocked a team-high 24 shots.
“He's been giving that to us all year,” senior forward Kenny Goins said. “He kind of goes hidden sometimes coming off the bench, but always when he enters the game he affects it in a positive way. We call him the X factor, but that's truly what he is, rebounding, defensively and sometime points here and there. Always energy and positivity.”
Three times this season, Tillman has pulled down 13 rebounds in a game to establish a career-high. He’s also recorded a pair of double-doubles, the last coming against Louisville when Tillman scored 11 points and had 13 rebounds. That was the beginning of a four-game stretch when Tillman scored in double figures, including a career-high 14 points in wins over Iowa and Florida.
He does it all coming off the bench, but that hardly means he’s not a vital part of the rotation. Tillman is averaging 21.2 minutes a game. Some of it is when he comes in for junior Nick Ward and some of it is when they’re playing together.
It’s become an effective tandem as Tillman has worked to become a better low-post scorer while both have become more effective passers, whether that’s to each other or when they’re being double-teamed.
“We work on it a lot in practice,” Tillman said. “It's important because teams think double-teams will limit us or limit our scoring, but we can still get out shooters involved. Then we can get ours off an offensive rebound or a re-post. The double-teams really don't affect us like they used to.”
Michigan State resumed Big Ten play at home Wednesday night against Northwestern and close out the week by traveling to Ohio State for a noon tip-off on Saturday.