Tillman sets pace for VCU record books

12/29/2017, 1:18 p.m.
Virginia Commonwealth University’s affiliation with Atlantic 10 Conference basketball is missing one golden nugget — an A-10 Player of the ...

Virginia Commonwealth University’s affiliation with Atlantic 10 Conference basketball is missing one golden nugget — an A-10 Player of the Year recipient.

Could Justin Tillman change that?

To go with his stellar play, Tillman is known for relentless effort, fierce facials and a distinctive hairdo — some call it a “frohawk” — that coincidentally matches VCU’s black and gold team colors.

Entering A-10 play on Saturday, Dec. 30, against Fordham University at the Siegel Center in Richmond, the 6-foot-8, 220-pound Tillman from Detroit’s Pershing High School is an A-10 statistical pacesetter in three categories you might expect, plus another that is surprising.

Tillman is fourth in the A-10 in scoring (18.2), fifth in rebounding (8.3) and fifth in shooting percentage (55.6), all somewhat predictable considering past numbers.

Not so predictable is his sixth-place standing in 3-point accuracy (15 for 34). Prior to the current season, he’d attempted just three 3-pointers with zero connections. He’s also 40 for 50, or 80 percent, at the foul line.

The dramatically upgraded range increases his future NBA and/or overseas team chances. Considering his elaborate hair and pro potential, shampoo endorsements might be possible, too, along the lines of the New York Giants’ Odell Beckham Jr..

Tillman would be the head and shoulders headliner even with a more traditional coiffure.

As a senior, the “Golden Fleece” is indisputably the Rams’ go-to man. In the first 13 games, Tillman has led in scoring nine times and in rebounding on eight occasions, helping the squad improve to an 8-5 record so far with a 75-65 home victory on Dec. 22 over Virginia Military Institute. Tillman had 19 points and 13 rebounds in the Rams’ third straight win.

Few VCU players have climbed the ladder to continued improvement more than the Motor City native. His scoring averages have jumped from 2.5 as a freshman to 6.1 as sophomore, to 8.2 as a junior and to 18.2 for his final season.

After a later start, Tillman joined the Rams’ 1,000-point club on Dec. 19 in a 69-55 win over Winthrop University at the Siegel Center. He scored at least 20 points in six straight games from Nov. 28 to Dec. 19, before securing 19 points against VMI.

Tillman’s handiwork shines all over VCU’s record book. His career shooting percentage of .580 ranks first of all time in Ramland. Until recently, most of his shots were from around — and sometimes above — the cylinder.

During his time in Richmond, he has graduated from back-up player as a freshman — even considering transferring — to certain All A-10 candidacy, and perhaps Player of the Year in the 14-school conference.

It’s not much of a stretch to think Tillman might be the Rams’ first A-10 Player of the Year. Tillman was third team All A-10 a year ago and was first team preseason All A-10 this season.

Last year’s A-10 Player of the Year, the University of Richmond’s T.J. Cline, has graduated, leaving the top individual accolade vacant.

Coincidentally, among Tillman’s Player of the Year challengers might be another Detroit native out of Romulus Senior High School, E.C. Matthews at the University of Rhode Island. The senior guard has returned to action following a November wrist injury. When healthy, Matthews is arguably the conference’s top NBA prospect.

Much could be determined, individually and team-wise, when defending A-10 champion, the University of Rhode Island, visits VCU on Feb. 2.

To his credit, Tillman has adjusted to playing for three different coaches — his recruiter, Coach Shaka Smart; former Coach Will Wade; and current Coach Mike Rhoades.

Since joining the A-10 prior to the 2012-13 season, VCU has been the premier program, posting an overall 64-22 mark during the regular season and a 76-26 record counting tournaments.

The Rams won the A-10 tourney in 2014 and have been to all five previous finals, each time qualifying for the NCAAs.

Still, the best VCU has fared individually is four All A-10 picks — JeQuan Lewis a year go; Melvin Johnson in 2016; and Treveon Graham in 2013 and 2014.

Tillman’s all-round talents qualify him as a candidate to become the Rams’ first ever Player of the Year, an overdue tribute considering the program’s lengthy prominence.