Michigan State men’s basketball coach Tom Izzo warned us.
“Don’t sleep on Xavier (Tillman),” Izzo said, comparing the 6-foot-8-inch Spartan forward's improvement to that of former MSU star and Golden State Warriors forward Draymond Green following the Spartans 87-69 win against Michigan Sunday.
Four days later, when the No. 8 Spartans defeated Minnesota 74-58 to continue a perfect in-conference record, Izzo’s warning was served.
“Santa brought him something,” Izzo said. “I mean he’s just getting better everyday. Everyday I see him he looks quicker … In practice he was shooting it better, making better post moves, using that left hand more, he’s becoming a real factor. I’m happy, he’s worked hard and I’m happy for him.”
Tillman contributed to the second straight career-high night for the Spartans, the first being senior guard Cassius Winston’s career-high 32 points on Sunday and now, Tillman’s career-high 16 rebounds against the Gophers.
A season-high 19 offensive rebounds for the Spartans led by Tillman’s seven paved the way to a performance for MSU that Minnesota Head Coach Richard Pitino said “bullied” his team on the glass.
Ironically, the Grand Rapids native’s career-high rebounding night happened during the same game he defended the Big Ten’s leading rebounder, the Golden Gophers' Daniel Oturu.
“I didn’t even know that I had that many rebounds,” Tillman said. “It just kind of throughout the game, I felt good though, until I started cramping, but I felt pretty good.”
With five minutes remaining, Tillman limped to the bench, holding his knee which had cramped at midcourt.
After getting checked, the Spartan big returned back to the court to put up some more points for the Spartans that left him just one basket short of his career-high in points.
Tillman went 9 for 14 from the field and made three straight buckets to put the first six points on the board for the Spartans Thursday night. Aside from a career-high performance from the boards, the Spartan big put up 19 points, had five blocks, three steals and four assists.
"Xavier did an unbelievable job," Izzo said before declaring Tillman his best defensive player. “ ... He’s become a big part of our offense but even in the post now he’s getting better. We post him up and he’s got post moves, that’s really encouraging."
Tillman's performance Thursday night gave him his seventh double-double of the season and proved just what Izzo had warned, that he just keeps getting better.
"He’s got to do so many different things," Izzo said. "He's getting to be my (Swiss Army knife), kind of like Draymond was, he’s getting into that kind of a groove right now.”