The 2018 Atlantic 10 Conference men's basketball tournament will unfold in Washington March 7-11. For coaches searching for the key to beating Virginia Commonwealth University at the Capital One Arena, one priority stands out: Contain Justin Tillman.
Tillman is the Rams senior forward who leads the team in scoring and rebounding. At 6-foot-8, with his quickness, he's a match-up nightmare for opponents. ESPN has cited him as one of the top 25 players in college basketball. Through 29 games, Tillman has averaged 19.3 points and 9.6 rebounds per outing.
"The most difficult aspect of guarding Tillman is how quickly he executes his post moves," says Chris Mooney, head coach at the University of Richmond. "He is shooting the ball almost immediately upon catching it in the low post. It is essentially impossible to double team him."
This season Tillman added a new component to his offensive arsenal: a catch-and-quick-release 3-point shot. In his three previous years, he missed all three of the shots he took from beyond the arc. This season Tillman has made good on 26 of the 72 treys he has attempted. So, did his knack for long-range shooting simply develop with off-season practice?
He says he could have been hitting treys in his sophomore season, but VCU's then-head coach, Will Wade, didn't want him taking those shots. The current head coach, Mike Rhoades, has been encouraging him to fire away. It's worth noting that when Tillman decided to come to VCU, Rhoades was an assistant coach under Shaka Smart and helped to recruit him.
After Tillman's freshman season, Smart left VCU to coach at Texas. Wade, with his predictable pound-it-inside scheme, stayed for just two seasons, then fled. With Wade now doing his coaching at Louisiana State University, Tillman has been thriving in Rhoades' more wide-open system.
The soft-spoken Tillman doesn't hide his pride in having stayed at VCU for the full four-year ride. Whether it should be attributed more to coaching or maturity, he now appears more focused throughout whole games. Nonetheless, he and his fellow senior, point guard Johnny Williams, have had to adjust to playing for three different head coaches, which isn't easy.
Of course Tillman thinks about playing professional basketball, but he says the best advice he's received has been to keep his mind in the present. Even if VCU has struggled a bit more this year than in recent campaigns, Tillman is finishing off what has been his best season. When he hears he's being seen as a "tweener" by wags, between the two forward positions, maybe without a true position in the NBA, he knows all he can do is play hard to win what games remain for him in black and gold.
Although VCU is one of just eight programs to have appeared in the NCAA's last seven championship tournaments, its hope for another at-large invitation has already been dashed.
Due to their less than stellar record, the Rams (16-13, 8-8 in the A-10) must win the Atlantic 10 tournament to go dancing this year. However, the final standings aren't set. VCU could still get a coveted double-bye in the A-10 tournament by getting hot at the end. Short of a championship run, if it wins one or two games in the conference tournament the semi-prestigious National Invitational Tournament may come a-calling.
Owing to his relentless, all-in style, Tillman, who wears number 4, has become the most recognizable personality on the team. Yet, there's no doubt some observers think first of his signature two-tone hairdo. Naturally, along with compliments he hears the occasional wisecrack. The best one, so far?
Without hesitation he chuckles and says, "Chia Pet."
What does he have to say about the Rams faithful who've packed the Siegel Center to capacity for every game of his VCU career? "They support us, they also travel with us. In victory or defeat they keep the same attitude, the same support."
Throughout the season's vexations, VCU's No. 4 has tended to find a way to make significant plays, just when the team needed it most. Since he plays both ends of the floor with equal ferocity, his game-changer could be a blocked shot or a monster dunk. Or it just as easily might be a timely, more subtle move without the basketball, such as setting a pick and rolling out of it with an explosive burst into the lane.
On Feb. 28, Justin Tillman's last scheduled game at the Siegel Center will be played against VCU's longtime rival, George Mason. Loyal Rams fans should hardly be surprised if they see he's saved his best for last. S