Since late January, Jalen Smith has taken the Big Ten by storm, posting double-doubles in 10 of 11 games and forcing opposing teams to double-team him.
But on Saturday, Michigan State elected not to double-team. That meant junior forward Xavier Tillman would be stuck guarding Smith one-on-one. Smith still ended with 20 points, but not having to double-team the forward meant Maryland’s role players couldn’t capitalize on the open looks they’ve received in earlier games.
Aaron Wiggins and Eric Ayala, couldn’t find their rhythm all night. Ayala finished with three points, going 0-4 from the field. Wiggins wasn’t much better, making just one of seven shots.
“Wasn’t their night. We tried hard, guys. Maybe even tried too hard,” head coach Mark Turgeon said. “Eric never got in rhythm. Never felt comfortable, never got in rhythm. Wiggs just couldn’t get it going. You gotta give them credit. They did a really nice job.”
Tillman’s defensive prowess played a huge factor in Michigan State’s win over Maryland and he’s been the key to the Spartans’ revival as of late. In the last four games, of which Michigan State has won three, Tillman has played stellar defense. He held Iowa’s Luka Garza to 8-21 from the field. Illinois’ Kofi Cockburn made only three field goals against Tillman.
“Being that guy who can stop the best four or five man on the court, that’s my job on the team,” Tillman said. “That’s the role I accepted and I like and I try to do it every single night.”
In the first matchup against Maryland, Tillman sent Smith to the bench in the first half with two fouls. But in the final 20 minutes, the Maryland big man got the best of Tillman. His 13 points on 6-8 on 75 percent shooting helped the Terps erase a seven point lead in the final four minutes.
But in College Park, Spartans head coach Tom Izzo trusted his reliable anchor and Tillman came through. Tillman blocked two shots, but his presence at the rim deterred the Terps.
“A banger” Smith called Tillman. “A rebounder.
“He’s a great player,” forward Donta Scott said. “A great big man. Tough and gritty,”
A few days prior to Saturday’s game, the 10 semifinalists for the Naismith Men’s Defensive Player of the Year award were announced. Tillman was not one of the 10, something he was aware of entering Saturday.
Whether Tillman was fueled by not making the list or by result after the last battle with Maryland, he came out ready from the opening tip on Saturday. Anchoring Michigan State’s defense, the Grand Rapids native made a statement on national television at the expense of Smith and the Terps.
“When I see that some people haven’t talked about him as defensive player of the year, I promise you he’s the best defender in this league,” Izzo said. “When you can cover a guy like that one-on-one…it’s a luxury.”
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