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Michgian State’s Xavier Tillman is ready for his moment

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MINNEAPOLIS — Xavier Tillman couldn’t quite believe it when he saw it. As he stepped out on to the floor, the Michigan State sophomore was almost overwhelmed by the enormity of it all. Tillman looked around U.S. Bank Stadium and tried to get a grasp of it.

“I’ve never been in anything like this before. We walked out there and everybody was kind of looking around like this is huge,” Tillman. “It was hard to even see the top of the stadium. I’ve never played in something this big.”

The stadium matches the stage, as well as the role Tillman has played for the Spartans over the last six weeks to help them get back to their first Final Four since 2015 and try to win Tom Izzo’s second national championship. The Grand Rapids, Mich. native has transformed from useful reserve to indispensable piece after taking over as starter following Nick Ward’s hand injury in mid-February.

“He plays his role to perfection,” All-American point guard Cassius Winston said.

That role was one the 6-foot-8 forward had to wait for, not just this season, but last. A four-star recruit coming out of Grand Rapids Christian High School, Tillman spent the bulk of his freshman season watching. He played just 305 minutes, rarely seeing the floor for more than just spot duty for a few minutes each game. Still, that was a role he tried to embrace.

“My freshman year when I didn’t play in any games, I was on the bench standing up, yelling. I was clapping. I was smacking the ground,” Tillman said. “Show as much energy as I could from the bench so whenever they looked over, they’d be locked in.”

Tillman went from spending most of his time on the bench last year to seeing much more action as a sophomore, but it wasn’t until Nick Ward broke his hand on Feb. 17, that Tillman emerged not only as a reliable replacement but a critical cog in Michigan State winning 14 of its last 15 to reach the Twin Cities and Izzo’s eighth Final Four.

He immediately put up numbers, going for 19 points and nine boards in his starting debut against Rutgers and followed that up shortly with double-doubles against Nebraska and Michigan. Despite the stats, though, Tillman was still trying to feel his way through his expanded role.

“I wasn’t comfortable,” Tillman. “In the moment you try to get comfortable, you try to lock in, but you’re always going to be a little shaky in the moment. When you look back on it, you can say, ‘OK, at this moment I made a mistake that I usually don’t make so I was probably a little nervous at that point.’”

Eventually, those nerves melted away as Tillman’s production rose down the stretch of the season. In his 12 starts, he averaged 13.8 points and 8.2 rebounds while shooting 60 percent from the floor.

“He’s stepped up a lot,” Ward said. “He’s been doing his thing.”

That thing was never better than when Michigan State needed him most. Sunday against Duke, the tournament’s prohibitive favorite, and Zion Williamson, the biggest force to hit college basketball in years, Tillman was at his best, putting up 19 points and 10 rebounds while defending Williamson.

There were no more nerves. No more searching for comfort. Just production.

“You would think, this is a big game, you should be a little nervous,” Tillman said, “but I was really comfortable. I think I’ve gotten to the point that I’m living with all my results that happen on the court so now I’m just trying to win the game and play as hard as I can no matter how well I play or not.”

Tillman is a man who not only has settled into his role with the Spartans, but his spot in life. He’s the father of a 2-year-old daughter and will marry his fiance next month. It brings the perspective that allows him to thrive at a university that casts a shadow 70 miles across Interstate 96 from East Lansing to his hometown.

“Other than getting engaged, this has been the best decision I’ve made, for my family, just for myself,” he said. “Myself because I’ve gotten to compete against some really great guys that made me better, and formed me into the man I am today.”

That’s a man that will be vital for Michigan State as it looks to reclaim its spot atop college basketball after nearly a two-decade hiatus.

“We’ve come this far, might as well finish it,” Tillman said. “To be part of a program with such a winning history is already an honor. To make another mark with the history of this program, is just unbelievable. Hopefully we’re able to finish it out with another national championship and add to coach’s resume and start our’s as well.”

Bubbles brewing with season on horizon

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
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INDIANAPOLIS — With the coronavirus pandemic already forcing changes for college basketball, a bubble may be brewing in Indianapolis.

Indiana Sports Corp. released a 16-page proposal Friday that calls for turning the city convention center’s exhibition halls and meeting rooms into basketball courts and locker rooms. There would be expansive safety measures and daily COVID-19 testing.

The all-inclusive price starts at $90,000 per team and would cover 20 hotel rooms per traveling party, testing, daily food vouchers ranging from $30-$50 and the cost of game officials. Sports Corp. President Ryan Vaughn said the price depends on what offerings teams or leagues choose.

“The interest has been high,” Vaughn said. “I think as conferences figure out what conference and non-conference schedules are going to look like, we’re we’re a very good option for folks. I would tell you we’ve had conversations with the power six conferences, mid-majors, it’s really kind of all over the Division I spectrum.”

Small wonder: The NCAA this week announced teams could start ramping up workouts Monday, with preseason practices set to begin Oct. 14. Season openers, however, were pushed back to Nov. 25 amid wide-ranging uncertainty about campus safety and team travel in the pandemic.

There is already scrambling going on and some of the marquee early-season tournaments have already been impacted.

The Maui Invitational will be moved from Hawaii to Asheville, North Carolina, with dates still to be determined and organizers clear that everyone involved “will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.” The Batttle 4 Atlantis has been canceled. The Cancun Challenge will be held in Melbourne, Florida, not Mexico.

More changes almost certainly will be coming, including what to do with the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.

“I think we’re past the guesswork on whether we play 20 conference games or more than that,” Purdue coach Matt Painter said Friday. “We’re trying to get everybody set like in terms of MTEs (multi-team events), figuring out when to play the ACC-Big Ten challenge.”

Painter, who was part of the NCAA committee that recommended how to start the season, noted part of the uncertainty stems from differing protocols imposed by campus, city and state officials.

In Indianapolis, Vaughn believes the convention center, nearby hotels, restaurants and downtown businesses, many within walking distance of the venue, could safely accommodate up to 24 teams. The 745,000-square foot facility would feature six basketball courts and two competition courts.

Anyone entering the convention center would undergo saliva-based rapid response testing, which would be sent to a third-party lab for results. Others venues could be added, too, potentially with more fans, if the case numbers decline.

If there is a taker, the event also could serve as a dry run for the 2021 Final Four, also slated for Indy.

“It’s not going to hurt,” Vaughn said. “I can tell you all the planning we’re doing right now is the same for a Final Four that’s been scheduled here for any other year. But it would be nice to have this experience under our belt to see if it can be done.”

Maui Invitational moving to North Carolina during pandemic

Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
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ASHEVILLE, N.C. — The Maui Invitational is moving to the mainland during the coronavirus pandemic.

One of the premier preseason tournaments on the college basketball schedule, the Maui Invitational will be played at the Harrah’s Cherokee Center in downtown Asheville, North Carolina.

Dates for the tournament announced Friday have yet to be finalized. The NCAA announced Wednesday that the college basketball season will begin Nov. 25.

This year’s Maui Invitational field includes Alabama, Davidson, Indiana, North Carolina, Providence, Stanford, Texas and UNLV.

All teams, staff, officials, and personnel will be in a bubble environment that limits their movement and interaction outside the venue.

Burton eligible at Texas Tech after 2 seasons at Wichita State

Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports
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LUBBOCK, Texas — Junior guard Jamarius Burton has been granted a waiver from the NCAA that makes him eligible to play this season for Texas Tech after starting 52 games the past two seasons for Wichita State.

Texas Tech coach Chris Beard announced the waiver Thursday, which came five months after Burton signed with the Big 12 team.

Burton has two seasons of eligibility remaining, as well as a redshirt season he could utilize. He averaged 10.3 points and 3.4 assists per game as a sophomore at Wichita State, where he played 67 games overall.

Burton is from Charlotte. He helped lead Independence High School to a 31-1 record and the North Carolina Class 4A state championship as a senior there.

NCAA season set to open day before Thanksgiving

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The NCAA men’s and women’s basketball season will begin on Nov. 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

The Division I Council voted Wednesday to push the start date back from the originally scheduled Nov. 10 as one of several precautions against the spread of coronavirus.

The later start date coincides with the decision most schools made to send students home from Thanksgiving until January out of concern about a potential late-fall and early-winter flareup of COVID-19. Closed campuses could serve as a quasi bubble for players and provide a window for non-conference games.

The maximum number of regular-season games has been reduced from 31 to 27. The minimum number of games for consideration for the NCAA Tournament was cut from 25 to 13.

Teams can start preseason practices Oct. 14 but will be allowed to work out 12 hours per week beginning Monday.

No scrimmages against other teams or exhibitions are allowed.

In other action, the council voted to extend the recruiting dead period for all sports through Dec. 31. In-person recruiting is not allowed during a dead period, though phone calls and other correspondence are allowed.

The men’s and women’s basketball oversight committees had jointly recommended a start date of Nov. 21, which would have allowed for games to be played on the weekend before Thanksgiving. The council opted not to do that to avoid a conflict with regular-season football games.

The council is scheduled to meet again Oct. 13-14 and could delay the start date and change other pieces of the basketball framework if circumstances surrounding the virus warrant.

UConn’s Tyrese Martin granted waiver to play this season

David Kohl-USA TODAY Sports
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STORRS, Conn. — UConn swingman Tyrese Martin, who transferred from Rhode Island in April, has been granted a waiver that will allow him to play for the Huskies this season.

The 6-foot-6 junior averaged 12.8 points and 7.1 rebounds and started every game last season for URI, where he was recruited by current UConn coach Dan Hurley.

NCAA rules require undergraduate transfers to sit out a season, but the organization has been more lenient in granting waivers during the pandemic.

Martin, 21, is expected to compete for playing time at UConn on the wing as both a guard and small forward.