Indianapolis • The big question at the beginning of the Utes’ preseason practices was who would step into the shoes of Kyle Kuzma. After all, the Utes lost their third straight NBA first-round draft pick, who just so happened to be the team’s leading scorer and rebounder.
That’s a hugely important spot to fill, and the common refrain throughout preseason from the players was that a collective effort would replace Kuzma’s production. While that is true — no one player will replace Kuzma — the guy who has stepped into the Kuzma’s spot in the lineup has been senior forward Tyler Rawson.
Rawson, an American Fork graduate who has now started as many games (eight) this season as he did all of last season, came into Tuesday’s game at Butler playing an average of 29 minutes per game, up from 19.5 minutes per game last season. While he hasn’t been asked to be a volume scorer this season, he came into this week averaging 9.9 points per game and tied for the team lead in rebounds at 6.9 per game.
“Having Kyle leave, I’ve had to take on a bigger role,” Rawson said this past week. “He was a great mentor for me. I learned a lot last year. It’s only helped my game this year.”
Rawson has also been asked to guard some of the toughest players on the opposing team such as Hawaii’s Mike Thomas (13.2 ppg) on Saturday and Butler’s Kelan Martin (16.5 ppg). Rawson has also shot 34 percent from 3-point range to help spread the floor and create room for David Collette in the post.
“It’s pretty similar, you know, I mean Kuzma stretched the floor a little bit as well last year,” Collette said. “I’m pretty used to it. [Rawson] does help, being able to do that, and he’s a great passer. When he gets the ball out there, I know he’s looking for other teammates especially from the inside.
“With him, he does a lot of stuff. It’s great to have him out there. He can shoot it, pass it, drive it. He can do whatever you need him to.”
Freshman forward Donnie Tillman scored 10 points or more in six of the first seven Utes games. He came into Tuesday’s game tied with Tyler Rawson for the team lead in rebounds (6.9 a game) and tied with Justin Bibbins for second in scoring (10.9 rpg).
Tillman, from Detroit, scored a season-high 16 points on Saturday against Hawaii. He led the team in double-doubles (two) through seven games and he had made 53.2 percent of his field goal attempts.
Against Butler, Tillman led the team with eight first-half points in 10 minutes before getting called for his second foul with more than four minutes left.
The Utes came into Tuesday night’s game set to face a defense that had just posted one of its best defensive efforts in years. The Bulldogs held Saint Louis to 45 points in a win on Saturday night. That total was the fewest allowed by the Bulldogs since Dec. 9, 2013, when they beat Manchester 100-41. Saint Louis shot 28.6 percent from the floor on Saturday and 21.1 percent form behind the 3-point arc.