Utah freshman Donnie Tillman showed electrifying potential in his first collegiate season, but he’ll likely need to take it a step further and show significant progress for the Utes to make a run at a top-four spot in the Pac-12 Conference and a potential NCAA Tournament bid.
Tillman, a high-energy 6-foot-7, 225-pound combination of wing and power forward, made a name for himself almost immediately this season. He provided a nightly boost offensively and on the boards coming off the bench early in the season.
He has returned to the lineup after a foot sprain that sidelined him for the end of nonconference play and the start of conference games, but Tillman hasn’t had the same impact, at least not steadily. He didn’t dress for last week’s game against Stanford while dealing with illness but played Saturday against Cal.
The Utes will try to move up the conference standings with a win against Washington at 7 p.m. (MT) Thursday in Seattle. Coincidentally, the last game Tillman scored 10 points or more came against Washington in Salt Lake on Jan. 18.
“It’s hard being in and out like that,” Tillman said. “I was being consistent early on in the season, and that’s the thing. I try to pride myself on getting better. Since I’ve been in and out with injury, sickness, it’s hard to come back and get a rhythm right away. If anything, I know I’m just going to keep working.”
Tillman, a Detroit native who played his prep basketball at national powerhouse Findlay in Nevada, averaged 22.9 minutes per game in the first nine games he played. He scored 10 points or more in seven consecutive games during that span, including a 20-point game at Butler.
Tillman had been the team’s third-leading scorer (10.7 points per game) while shooting 53 percent from the field and tied for the team lead in rebounds (6.2 per game). Then he missed six of the next seven games with the foot injury. His play has fluctuated since returning.
He had a 14-point, eight-rebound night and grabbed two offensive rebounds late in a one-possession game to help clinch a victory against Washington. He experienced foul trouble and played just seven minutes the next game against Washington State. He committed three turnovers and several defensive breakdowns in a loss against Colorado.
Tillman has averaged 6.0 points and 3.0 rebounds while having shot 38 percent from the field in his past five games. Finding his way against conference opponents will be part of the growing pains for him, as it is for most freshmen.
“The scouting report — they know everything you’re about to do,” Tillman said about conference play. “Especially a team like us. We take pride in that.
“But they’re calling out our plays. You catch it, they’re calling out your best move, your strengths — he likes to pump fake, he’s a shooter — things of that nature. Teams are on it. At the end of the day, players make plays.”
Tillman has focused on being more patient when he catches the ball, not trying to do too much on his own and becoming more consistent with his jump shot. At the same time, he’s had to adjust to matchups with bigger longer defenders and at times chasing smaller, quicker offensive players in the Pac-12.
“That’s the Pac-12 for you, it just makes you better,” Tillman said.
“We’re hard-driving him,” Utes coach Larry Krystkowiak said last week. “I think you understand as a freshman maybe you come in and people don’t know what to expect. He was healthy. He was playing a high level. Then all of a sudden you have some accolades, people start talking, there’s a little bit of a buzz about you, and other teams — the higher you move up that scouting report — are going to be prepared for you in conference play. Nothing comes easy.”
Krystkowiak said the foot injury set Tillman’s conditioning back, but the coach quickly added it’s not a time for excuses in regard to Tillman or anyone else.
“You’ve got to get guys playing above [where they are] and at a high level if you want to be in those discussions in March,” Krystkowiak said.
UTAH AT WASHINGTON
Tipoff • 7 p.m. MT Thursday
TV • Pac-12 Network
Radio • 700 AM
Records • Utah 15-9, 7-6, Washington 17-8, 7-5
Series history • Utah leads 14-9
About the Utes • Utes senior forward David Collette has gone 15-of-16 shooting in his past two games with 13 points in a win over Stanford and 18 points in a win over California. Collette leads the team with a 60.8 field-goal percentage. … Junior guard Sedrick Barefield returned to the starting lineup this past week and averaged 15 points per game while shooting 11 of 20 overall and 4 of 9 on 3-pointers in a pair of games at home. … Senior guard Justin Bibbins scored 20 points and handed out five assists in a 70-62 win over Washington on Jan. 18.
About the Huskies • The Huskies are coming off back-to-back road losses to the Oregon schools last week, but the previous week they swept nationally ranked Arizona and Arizona State in Seattle. … Junior Noah Dickerson ranks third in the conference in rebounding (8.4 per game) and 13th in scoring (15.5 points per game). He had 14 points and eight rebounds against the Utes in Salt Lake. … Freshman guard Jaylen Nowell, a former Seattle-area prep standout, leads the team in scoring (16.5 ppg). Nowell scored 17 points on 8-of-17 shooting against the Utes on Jan. 18.