Michigan State's Cassius Winston, Kenny Goins, Aaron Henry, Xavier Tillman and Matt McQuaid talk about playing Texas Tech in the Final Four. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
Minneapolis — They’ve grown with opportunity, grown out of necessity. The Spartans are here because limits were lifted and responsibility demanded.
Cassius Winston took charge. Matt McQuaid shook his tentativeness to become a lethal senior shooter. Kenny Goins stopped passing up shots, started drilling them. Aaron Henry went from a bit role to the only freshman starter at the Final Four.
Growing up out of necessity? Nobody embodies it more than Xavier Tillman, the Spartans’ 6-foot-8 sophomore forward who has become much more than an X factor. Since taking over for Nick Ward, who injured his hand, Tillman has become a symbol of the Spartans’ rise, a testament to their toughness. When Michigan State faces Texas Tech Saturday night for a spot in Monday night’s championship game, it’ll be tough on tough, man on man, Tillman on one of the Red Raiders’ big men, 6-9 Norense Odiase and 6-10 Tariq Owens.
Texas Tech has the nation’s second-ranked defense, a sticky, stifling unit that models itself after Michigan State. The Red Raiders have a star, Jarrett Culver, and a nasty knack for forcing turnovers. Tom Izzo and Chris Beard have spent the past few days openly admiring each other’s programs, while privately fretting. How does one beat a mirror image of oneself?
It will take rebounding, which the Spartans do well and the Red Raiders not so well. On Tillman’s list of titles, that ranks very high — rebounder, defender, father, soon-to-be husband (not necessarily in that order). The connection from the court to the crib is real for Tillman, who said he was heavy and unsure coming out of Grand Rapids Christian High School.
Then he had a child, Yanni, now 2, and is set to marry in May. Then he got a kick-start from Izzo. Then he got a chance, with Ward’s injury.
Now he’s as indispensable as any Spartan not named Cassius. Since entering the starting lineup 12 games ago, Tillman is second on the team in scoring (13.8) and rebounding (8.1). After averaging 2.8 points and 2.6 rebounds as a freshman, you could say Tillman burst out of nowhere, except that he spent the offseason reworking his game and preparing for this chance.
“I’m willing to do anything my team needs me to do,” Tillman said. “If they need me starting, that’s what it’ll be. If Nick came back to start, that’s what it was gonna be. I’m not a selfish dude in the slightest bit.”
No one on this experienced team displays selfish tendencies, and that doesn’t just happen by accident. When Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson departed after last season, the Spartans had to remake themselves without a lottery-pick star. In a way, Tillman could become a bit like Draymond Green, overweight and overlooked at first, honed the hard way.
In last week’s thriller against Duke, Goins made the shot and Winston controlled the game. But before Goins’ winner, it was Tillman who dropped in a layup off a lob from Winston. Before Goins’ heave to the heavens, it was Tillman who passed the ball, on a play designed for him to roll to the hoop. And it was Tillman who gave a sly wink to Winston on the final in-bounds pass to clinch it.
Afterward, people were still marveling about Zion Williamson, who had 24 points and 14 rebounds. But much of his production came with Tillman on the bench in foul trouble, and Tillman nearly matched him anyhow — 19 points, nine rebounds. Williamson called the defense “great,” and Texas Tech has been using similar descriptions.
“Everybody has an idea of the way the game's played, and the way Michigan State plays is exactly how I visualize the game, defense and toughness,” Beard said. “They have an identity.”
The Red Raiders dismantled Michigan’s identity last weekend in a 63-44 beating. They’ll force their opponent to heave 3-pointers, and Michigan went 1-for-19. The Spartans are better shooting the 3 and present more problems inside with their threesome of Tillman, Goins and Ward. Izzo still wants to get Ward more involved, but it’s hard to pull minutes away from a guy playing so well.
Seized the moment
The injury Feb. 17 appeared to signal devastation for the Spartans. Instead, it led to a revelation.
“When Nick went down, I think the guys rallied behind Xavier in a lot of ways,” Izzo said. “And he got some confidence. He’s done what people say you should do — he’s taken the ball and run with it, made the best of his opportunity.”
Tillman had no choice but to grow into the role, and had a life experience doing so. After chasing a national championship ring, he’ll add another ring when he weds Tamia Todd next month.
Both adjustments — on and off the court — forced Tillman to address his flaws. He had to lose weight, work harder on his game, stop being tardy. He had to become more than just a rebounder and defender, but a scorer and energy booster. X had to add some O.
“It can go either way when you have a child that young,” assistant coach Dane Fife said. “And it taught X the level of commitment you have to have. Because coming in, he didn’t understand the commitment that needed to be made, and most kids don’t.”
Tillman doesn’t deny it. Now he feels comfortable in his role, and in his own body.
“Having a child made me more focused, made me want to be a better person,” he said. “It made me be considerate. Before I had Yanni, I was kind of a selfish guy. Now I’m the guy who tries to be a nurturer. I try to uplift my teammates because I do that with my daughter, make sure she’s always happy.”
That’s some admirable self-analysis, an unseen strand in the Spartans’ DNA. Tillman’s link to his daughter created a connection, and made him value connections.
And in a way, it helped him understand Izzo better. The prodding and yelling make sense when Tillman is home doing the same with his child.
“From a parental point of view, you can definitely see it because he sees us like his kids,” Tillman said. “When my daughter makes a dangerous mistake, like a child trying to touch an electric outlet, I’m freaking out, I’m yelling, I’m getting mad. That’s the same thing with coach Iz. I don’t get yelled at too often, I just try to do exactly what he’s telling me. If I do get yelled at, it’s because a guy is outworking me. That can’t happen because that’s my job, to outwork everybody on the court.”
His teammates saw this coming during the summer, when he stayed on campus, dropped 20 pounds and worked tirelessly on his offensive moves. The defense always was there — he leads the team with 60 blocks and is second in steals — but he had to give more, even sooner than expected.
Out-toughing the tough is the Spartans’ task against Texas Tech, and toughing-it-out is how they got here. Tillman knows as well as anyone. Sometimes you grow up gradually, and sometimes you grow up now.
At U.S. Bank Stadium, Minneapolis
Virginia (33-3) vs. Auburn (30-9), 6:09 p.m. (CBS)
Michigan State (32-6) vs. Texas Tech (30-6), 8:49 p.m. (CBS)
Championship, 9 p.m. (CBS)