Utah's defeat at BYU secondary to loss of Donnie Tillman

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Utes forward Donnie Tillman (3) shoots past Missouri Tigers guard Terrence Phillips (1) during the game at the Jon M. Huntsman Center Thursday, November 16, 2017.

Bragging rights aside, the biggest loss the Utes suffered last week wasn’t Saturday night’s game against rival BYU.

The loss of freshman forward Donnie Tillman will have a much more far-reaching effect. Tillman, who’d become a mainstay in the Utah rotation in the first nine games, sat out the BYU game with a sprained left foot. The 6-foot-7, 225-pound hard-nosed forward watched from the sideline with a protective boot as Utah fell 77-65 in the Marriott Center.

“That’s the nature of a basketball season,” Utes coach Larry Krystkowiak said. “I know for us in a game like this, he might be the first person that I would say we need, you know, when you’ve got that physical nature to you and you like this [type of game].

“You look at games of this nature – our UNLV loss, our Butler loss – he was really our leader in both those games. He’s a guy that gives you a little presence. That one hurt. No doubt about it, but no excuses. We got out butts beat, didn’t deserve to win.”

Tillman has seemed like a one-man bench brigade at times. Despite coming off the bench in each of the first nine games, Tillman played an average of 22.9 minutes per game and scored 10 points or more in seven consecutive games, including a 20-point game on the road against Butler.

Krystkowiak said Tillman’s foot sprain initially occurred against Butler on Dec.5. Tillman played against Utah State in the Beehive Classic, but dealt with foul trouble in the first half and went scoreless in 16 minutes in the game. It’s not clear how much time Tillman will miss.

Tillman went into the weekend as the team’s third-leading scorer (10.7 points per game) while shooting 53 percent from the field and 87 percent from the free throw line. He was also tied for the team lead in rebounds per game (6.2).

The way Tillman has played – he brought a rugged nature and provided a second low-post scoring option along with senior big man David Collette – will be as difficult to replace, if not more, as his statistical production.

“We’ve tried to make the game plan this week about having some guards play bigger spots and trying to adjust match-ups,” Utes senior forward Tyler Rawson said. “We had a good plan prepared coming in. We obviously missed Donnie, his post presence, his physical play, but we need to do better to step up and fill his shoes.”

Utes forward Chris Seeley, a super athletic 6-foot-8 redshirt freshman, remains sidelined following gallbladder surgery on Dec. 1. Seeley was also watching Saturday’s game from the bench and not in uniform. Krystkowiak has not given a timetable on Seeley’s return.

Sophomore wing Kolbe Caldwell played 18 minutes against BYU, his most playing time since he played 19 minutes in the season opener against Prairie View A&M. Caldwell scored two points and grabbed two rebounds.

Rawson, who fell two rebounds shy of a triple-double against BYU, has been utilized as a perimeter-oriented forward stretching the floor and providing space for post players like Collette and Tillman. Rawson seems likely to remain in that role.

Sophomore center Jayce Johnson would appear to be the Utes next best interior scoring option. Johnson, who missed the first two games of the season with an ankle injury, has battled a penchant for piling up fouls this season (28 in 120 minutes). However, Johnson has averaged 7.1 points and 5.1 rebounds off the bench while shooting 56.4 percent from the field.