Michigan State junior Xavier Tillman and senior Cassius Winston talk about the upcoming season at Big Ten media day. Matt Charboneau, The Detroit News
Rosemont, Ill. — Early this summer Xavier Tillman realized he needed to drop a few pounds.
“After the honeymoon it was getting my weight back down,” Tillman said. “I was eating good.”
Not exactly something you expect to hear from a typical college junior, but Tillman really never has been the typical college student. It’s hard to be when you arrived on campus as a freshman already a dad and committed to not just being a student and playing basketball, but being a family man, as well.
But that was the choice Tillman and his then-girlfriend, Tamia Todd, made when Tillman came to Michigan State out of Grand Rapids Christian in the fall of 2017 with their daughter, Ayanna.
Two years later, Tillman and Tamia have gotten married — hence, the honeymoon — Tillman is playing himself into one of the best frontcourt players in the Big Ten for a team many are picking to win the national championship, and Tillman finished his last semester with a 3.64 grade-point-average for which he was honored last Saturday’s home football game.
Oh, and to add to all of that, Ayanna — or “Yanni” as everyone calls her — is about to become a big sister.
“She’s excited,” Tillman said. “But she doesn’t really get the grasp of it yet. She’s not 3 yet, so that’s understandable.”
To say Tillman has a lot on his plate would be a wild understatement. But few have flourished the way the 6-foot-8, 245-pounder have.
“It’s amazing what that kid has done,” Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. “I couldn't have done what he did. And let's face it, nine times out of 10 those become problems or disasters, and for some reason he's used it as motivation. I mean, there hasn't been a guy that I know, that I coached, that has dealt with as many things he’s dealing with. So the rankings and all that, I do not think it's going to faze him. He's been pretty grounded in everything he does, but there is going to be more on his plate now.”
There’s going to be more on his plate both on and off the court.
Tamia is due with the couple’s second child on Feb. 23 — right in the heart of the Big Ten season. Tillman is hoping the big day comes somewhere between Feb. 21 and 28 when the Spartans won’t be on the road. If they are, well, things could get interesting.
“Coach said they could fly me back home,” Tillman said.
Of course, Tillman will be there for his family. But he’s clearly just as vital to his basketball family, as well. That much was clear in the second half of last season when Tillman entered the starting lineup after Nick Ward broke his hand, and helped spark Michigan State’s run to the Big Ten regular-season and tournament championship, and ultimately the Final Four.
An athletic big man that rebounded and defended with the best of them, Tillman was quickly showing he could become a big part of the offense with his ability to knock a shot down and play the pick and roll. But with Ward gone, Tillman is now the man in the middle for the Spartans, and that means taking his game to another level.
So, once the wedding and honeymoon cruise through the Caribbean was done, it was back to work. He needed to be a more all-around player, so Tillman started by dropping a couple pf pounds before getting after it on the court.
“To be more of a post scorer that was a big goal of mine, just because that was the one thing that I couldn't do that Nick was so good at,” Tillman said. “The whole summer it was, ‘OK, if we go back and do what Nick was good at, plus what I'm good at, then we're going to be a really good team, so teams like Texas Tech won't be able to just guard the ball screen.’ That was my goal — to work on my post moves and work on my footwork, work on my reads and my patience, my strength in the post. That's what I did.”
It was necessary, Izzo believes. Not just for the Spartans, but for Tillman, too.
Named to the preseason All-Big Ten team, Tillman is primed for a huge season, and refining his entire game will help him do that, particularly getting better scoring in the post.
“He has worked on it, but it has to take a major step,” Izzo said. “He had to get better in that area. He worked on his 3-point shot a lot last summer, but he's still got a score in the post and he's a very good free throw shooter, so he needs to get fouled. You don't get fouled on the 3-point line. Last year he started playing outside a little bit more, forgetting he's got to get back in there. If Xavier makes it to the next level it’s going to be because of his rebounding his defense.”
There seems little doubt Tillman will make the necessary jump this season. He’s done it every year he’s been at Michigan State, and he’s done it while still being a dad, and now a husband.
“Yanni has really helped me grow up because if I’m gonna be a dad I’ve got to accept this role,” Tillman said. “I can’t just want to be a college student and be out all night and be a dad, too. It doesn’t work both ways. And I’ve fully accepted the role of being a father and the regular college life isn’t my life and I’ve adapted to it really easy.”
It’s impressed his coach and it impresses his teammates on a daily basis.
“He’s so mature and so focused that things don’t faze him,” senior Cassius Winston said. “When he’s doing his schoolwork that's what he's focused on. When he’s playing basketball that's what he’s focused on. When he's with his family, that's his world, that's what he's focused on. So you know, he's so driven so focused and it’s not just him. He has a beautiful wife, Tamia, who has helped a lot in that aspect too.
"So like I said, he's way more mature than me. Way more mature than lot of people I know to kind of be a college athlete and still have his head on straight and focused on his job.”
That focus will continue as Michigan State faces a brutal nonconference schedule and it will go on into Big Ten play and beyond. Tillman will be doing it as he’s pulled in two directions — at home and on the court.
He’s prepared to handle it because that’s all he knows.
“For me, personally, I try to do the same things that got me here,” Tillman said. “I'm working as hard as I can. I'm being as vocal as I can, controlling all my controllables and I'm not trying to do anything out of the ordinary.”
Maybe not to him, but for most college juniors, what Tillman is doing is extraordinary.