EAST LANSING- With so much talent and scoring returning to this Spartan basketball team, there doesn’t seem to be as many questions entering the season as the team faced a year ago. MSU returns 78 percent of its scoring from last season.
During Media Day on Wednesday though Head coach Tom Izzo said the most pleasant surprise of training camp wasn't the improvement of his sophomores, juniors and seniors but instead it has been former Grand Rapids Christian star Xavier Tillman.
"It's taking stress off my shoulders to know that I'm moving in the right direction," Tillman said. "It makes me feel confident that I'm able to contribute and help my team win games."
Tillman was a Mr. Basketball finalist this past spring after leading the Eagles to a 27-1 record and a runner-up finish in the MHSAA Class A boys basketball state tournament. More often than not he was the biggest player on the floor in high school, but he's undergone a few changes in a very short time at MSU.
Izzo says Tillman has lost 20 pounds and brings a cerebral game to practice, along with much needed toughness. The hall of fame coach thought the freshman would be a good player, he just didn’t expect this much, this soon.
"He's really come on faster than we thought, he's more athletic than we thought, he runs the court better and he's got great hands," Izzo said. "We offered him a scholarship so of course we thought he was good...but he's a kid that wasn't ranked off the charts (in high school) but was better than the ranking they gave him."
Tillman says he's made it an effort to learn new ways to use his size and strength to his advantage every day in practice. However, he's going up against players taller and, at times, as strong as he is. So he also works on outsmarting his teammates while bringing the level of intensity that Izzo craves.
"Nothing is like here," said the 6-foot-8 freshman. "This intensity is different. It's not like Grand Rapids Christian, it's like coach Izzo looking at me in my face like "You've got to show up! You've got to play' so it's more personal.
As he continues to get acclimated to the rigors of college life, Tillman says coming home to his 10-month old daughter Ayanna gives him another source of strength.
"It's the icing on the cake. Throughout the day I'm working on getting my homework and tutoring done. Also in practice I'm running as hard as I can, boxing out and being as tough as I can. After all that work I'm exhausted. So when I get to come home and she just smiles at me, it rejuvenates me. It's kind of like 'ok, I'm ready for tomorrow because I've got to keep working for her.'"