Dimondale, Mich. – The roster may be loaded, but the plates aren’t. At least not the way they once were.
And as Michigan State’s basketball team continues the prep work for what figures to be a legitimate run at a national title next season, it may surprise some fans to learn just who’s doing what back in the kitchen.
Xavier Tillman, one of the two incoming freshmen for Tom Izzo’s team, was talking about that last week, as he explained just how much has changed for him in short order. The state’s top-rated recruit – a bruising 6-foot-8 forward out of Grand Rapids Christian – arrived on campus in mid-May, and after a healthy dose of conditioning work and practice time with his new teammates, he already has shed seven pounds – down from 270 – while adding a good deal of lean muscle mass.
And it turns out his de facto dietician is none other than teammate Nick Ward.
“I hung out with him one afternoon and he made me steak, a salad and some pasta,” Tillman laughed last week after going head-to-head with Ward at the opening night of the Moneyball Pro-Am summer league in Lansing. “He’s just trying to show me healthy eating – what to eat, what I should eat. He’s really been taking me under his wing and helping me with that aspect.”
That might strike some as a bit of a surprise, given where Ward’s own habits were a year ago as a freshman.
“But Nick has grown so much as a person and a player since he’s been here,” senior captain Tum Tum Nairn said.
And now it’s starting to show, not just in his own game – Ward showed off a trimmed-down, 240-pound frame as he poured in 47 points in Thursday’s Moneyball opener – but in his eagerness to take on a bit of a leadership role this spring.
Tillman, Jackson ‘fit in perfectly’
Ward has helped Tillman do more than eliminate the Chick-fil-A and pizza from his diet. He also is showing him the benefits of getting in early-morning workouts, along with a few tips about handling the expectations from a demanding head coach.
“He has a different battle than me,” Ward said. “But I can give him the advice of what I learned over the (last) year. It’s gonna help him a lot.
“I knew what to expect before I committed here. I just didn’t know how hard it was gonna be. But it’s all a learning process, and it takes time.”
The last six months have been a whirlwind for Tillman, a four-star recruit who was edged out by Ann Arbor-bound Isaiah Livers for Michigan’s Mr. Basketball honors this past winter. Tillman celebrated the birth of his daughter, Ayanna, in December, turned 18 a month later and got engaged to his girlfriend, Tamia, in May, right before heading to East Lansing, where he just completed his first core-curriculum class at MSU – Integrative Studies and Social Science 215.
But already, he and fellow freshman Jaren Jackson Jr., the sweet-shooting, 6-10 forward pegged as a possible lottery pick in next year’s NBA draft, have assimilated in the program.
“They fit in perfectly,” Nairn said. “I mean, that’s the reason why they came, because they fit in so well. And they came in ready to learn, and listen.”
Listen to the returning players talk and it’s easy to see where Tillman might fit in the mix this fall. Actually, you could hear it in Izzo’s voice as soon as the season ended in March with the Spartans' second-round NCAA Tournament loss to Kansas.
“Everybody can kiss my, um, ear, as far as not having enough bigs next year,” Izzo said then. “Because I’m gonna have enough bigs, and I’m gonna beat the hell out of some people. There’ll be some paybacks on that. We’re not getting outrebounded again in my life.”
Izzo had spent all of last season trying to win with a patchwork frontcourt decimated by injuries, not to mention the unexpected NBA departure of Deyonta Davis. As a result, Ward, the one freshman in that vaunted 2016 class that Izzo had hoped to bring along slowly, was forced to play an outsized role before he was ready, mentally or physically.
Tillman won’t have that same issue. Not with Ward returning inside along with Gavin Schilling, who sat out last season due to injury. And not with Jackson expected to step in as a starter quickly, if not immediately.
Then again, the way Tillman plays, he’ll be hard to keep on the bench, too, according to junior Kyle Ahrens, his Moneyball teammate who was raving about the freshman’s “unbelievable” basketball IQ last week.
"He's so smart when he plays,” Ahrens said. “He knows where to roll. He knows where to slide on defense. He knows where to slip. He just reads the game really well."
His tenacity apparently knows no bounds, either, which is what Miles Bridges was smiling about after seeing Tillman diving on the floor for loose balls in a summer-league game.
“He’s a junkyard dog,” Bridges said. “He tries to do everything to win. Pickup games, real games, even if we’re just playing around with kids, he’s trying to play his game.”
Watching Ward and Tillman try their post-up games against each other last week, Nairn agreed that’s part of the unspoken lesson the Spartans relearn each offseason as well.
“It’s about competing against each other every day, giving each other that look every day,” he said, nodding in Tillman’s direction. “It works both ways. He’s gonna push Nick, and Nick is gonna push him.”
And when push comes to shove, that should keep them all hungry for more.