Tucson, Ariz. • The dots were not difficult to connect last month, when Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak changed his starting lineup and said his personnel decisions would be driven by what happened in practice and in “other areas of guys' lives.”
Even though senior guard Sedrick Barefield also began coming off the bench that week, sophomore forward Donnie Tillman clearly was the mysterious target of Krystkowiak's message. Tillman has responded well.
Making six 3-pointers and scoring a career-high 22 points Thursday, Tillman helped power the Utes to a 96-86 win at Arizona State as they opened the Pac-12 basketball schedule. The Utes will visit Arizona on Saturday afternoon, suddenly feeling a lot better about themselves.
“I just had to look myself in the mirror, and remember the kind of player I am and the kind of belief I have in myself,” Tillman said Friday, after Utah's practice at the McKale Center. “I had a bench stint; I was OK. I didn't take it to heart or pout or cry about it. I know who I am. I'm just back on the right path.”
Last January, Tillman missed a tough, contested shot on an in-bounds play at the end of a 74-73 loss at Arizona, where Utah has never won in the school’s Pac-12 era.
Krystkowiak likes to use “karma” as an explanation for success on the court, stemming from a proper approach to academics, meetings and other responsibilities. He's convinced the ball sometimes goes through the hoop for reasons that go beyond proper shooting form.
Citing “some deficiencies” in Tillman's previous handling of off-court matters, Krystkowiak said, “He's kind of tightened the ship a little bit. Lately, he's seen that when he's been held to that standard in some of those areas and he's practicing better, all of a sudden, lo and behold, you play better.”
That certainly happened Thursday. Tillman's performance included six rebounds and five assists, but the most notable statistic was his 6-of-8 shooting from 3-point range. He had not made more than two 3-pointers in a game and was 20 of 68 (.294) for the season.
Tillman came off the bench again Thursday, but Krystkowiak was shrewd enough to start him in place of freshman Riley Battin in the second half, when he made four 3s and scored 14 points. Tillman devoted much of his summer to improving his outside shooting, and the rewards came Thursday.
The Utes need more of those well-rounded efforts from him. Tillman nearly recorded a triple-double vs. Mississippi Valley State in November, posting 12 points, nine rebounds and seven assists in only 17 minutes of Utah's rout. His slump started against Northwestern in the Wooden Legacy in California, part of a five-game stretch when he shot 7 of 28 from the field.
Tillman recovered with a 13-point, 10-rebound game last weekend in a loss to No. 6 Nevada, although he shot 3 of 9. That made his performance against ASU a breakthrough. “I'm just going to keep the confidence going,” he said. “I just needed a win like that, that's all. We're trending up right now.”
Every team's stock will be subject to re-evaluation during this Pac-12 season. Individually and collectively, Krystkowiak is forecasting “ebbs and flows, biorhythms or whatever the heck you want to call it, where there's ups and downs.”
The longer the Utes can keep Tillman on an upswing, the better.
UTAH AT ARIZONA
At the McKale Center, Tucson, Ariz.
Tipoff: Saturday, noon MST
TV: Pac-12 Networks.
Radio: ESPN 700.
Records: Utah 7-6 (1-0 Pac-12); Arizona 10-4 (1-0 Pac-12).
Series history: Arizona leads, 33-29.
Last meeting: Arizona 74, Utah 73 (2018).
About the Utes: Utah is 1-12 vs. Arizona since joining the Pac-12. … The Utes shot 57.1 percent from the field in the second half of Thursday’s 96-86 win at Arizona State, going 10 of 16 (.625) from 3-point range. … Sedrick Barefield and Timmy Allen each played 36 minutes at ASU. Barefield posted 24 points and six assists and ASU coach Bobby Hurley said he was “the best player on the floor; it wasn’t even close.”
About the Wildcats: Devonaire Doutrive, a little-used reserve guard, gave Arizona some valuable minutes in Thursday’s 64-56 win over Colorado. He’s a brother of former Ute guard Vante Hendrix, who left the team in November as a redshirt freshman. … The Wildcats had an easier time with Colorado than the score suggests, holding the Buffaloes to 35.8-percent shooting for the game and leading 39-24 at halftime.