Ute forward Donnie Tillman is transferring to UNLV, will be close to his ailing mom and a former Ute assistant

(Rick Egan | Tribune file photo) USC Trojans forward Bennie Boatwright (25) trails Utah Utes forward Donnie Tillman (3) as he takes the ball to the hoop, in PAC-12 basketball action between Utah Utes and USC Trojans at the Jon M. Huntsman Center, Thursday, March 7, 2019.

Donnie Tillman's college basketball career will continue in Las Vegas, where his Utah tenure ended.

Tillman will transfer into a UNLV program that includes former Ute assistant coach DeMarlo Slocum, the school announced Monday night. The move completes an offseason story that began nearly two months ago when Utah announced he was taking a “leave of absence” from the school in 2019-20, enabling him to be near his ailing mother, before he visited schools in New Jersey and Illinois.

The background involves Tillman’s apparent dissatisfaction with coach Larry Krystkowiak’s program. Former teammates, though, don’t understand why he would leave Utah when the 2019-20 roster was designed to showcase him for a potential NBA career.

Utah’s June 7 news release may end up helping Tillman, after his entering the NCAA transfer portal three days later revealed his strategy. Transfers ordinarily have to sit out one season to establish residency, but the NCAA allows waivers for immediate eligibility when family needs are judged to have motivated the move.

Donna Hodge moved from Detroit to Las Vegas five years ago so Tillman, her youngest son, could enroll at Findlay Prep. Hodge has dealt with epilepsy, she told The Salt Lake Tribune in 2017, and Tillman recently tweeted that her undisclosed surgical procedure “went well.”

Contacted after the Las Vegas Review-Journal initially reported her son's transfer, Hodge told The Tribune only that she was surprised the news had become public. Tillman's confirmation came via retweets about his move, in his usual way of making announcements.

Tillman played two years for the Utes, becoming the Pac-12 Sixth Man of the Year in 2018-19. The sophomore forward averaged 10.5 points for a team that finished third in the conference with an 11-7 record (17-14 overall).

The role that enabled Tillman to earn that award originally stemmed from Krystkowiak's taking him out of the starting lineup in mid-December, due to off-court issues such as being late for meetings and academic appointments. That move, and the temporarily positive outcome, frame Tillman's time with the Utes that ended with a loss to Oregon in the Pac-12 tournament quarterfinals in Las Vegas in March. Tillman spoke afterward of feeling “great about next year” and promising to return as “more of a leader” for a young team.

Since then, the Utes have become even younger, with center Jayce Johnson moving to Marquette as a graduate transfer and Tillman reuniting with Slocum, who joined new coach T.J. Otzelberger’s UNLV staff in April. Utah will have eight freshmen, three sophomores and a junior on its scholarship roster in 2019-20.

If Tillman's move appears to have been orchestrated since last spring, he went through a lengthy process before finalizing it. In a school news release issued nearly two months ago, he said goodbye to Ute fans and thanked Krystkowiak for allowing him to attend to his mother. He then entered the transfer portal.

During the past month, Tillman publicized his visits to Rutgers and Illinois, suggesting the Big Ten schools were genuine alternatives, somewhat near his family's home base in Detroit. Last week, he mentioned St. John's in New York as another possibility.

One former Ute player has said Krystkowiak becomes dismissive of players once they talk about transferring, but that apparently was not the case with Johnson or Tillman. If anything, one source said, Krystkowiak invested more effort than was merited in a bid to keep Tillman.

“Trust me, nobody beats themselves up harder than I do, in terms of what would I do different, how can we get better,” Krystkowiak said in April, when Johnson entered the transfer portal.

“I will always defend our coaching staff and my experience at the U.,” said Parker Van Dyke, a guard who completed his four-year Utah career in March.

Speaking in general about transfers, Van Dyke added, “There were times when not everything went my way. I’m an old-school guy. I always had that mentality [of sticking with the program]. A lot of people aren’t willing to do that. … When they hit a wall, they don’t fight through it.”

Another former teammate expressed surprise that Johnson and Tillman would transfer at this stage, because the 2019-20 team would have been built around them. Playing for Krystkowiak is demanding, the player said, and “you have to be thick-skinned,” but the coach’s methods and the program’s standards of off-court responsibility provide good training for pro basketball.

Slocum is known to have functioned as a buffer between Krystkowiak and the players, a dynamic that applies to most coaching staffs. Donny Daniels, who rejoined Utah's staff June 1 as director of player development, will have a mentoring role. Tillman entered the transfer portal shortly after Daniels arrived. Asked in early July if he could have encouraged Tillman to stay with more time, Daniels said, “It's a relationship. Would it have taken a month? Would it have taken two months? Would it have taken two years? You've got to build a relationship. … He had to do what's best for him and his family.”

His visits to the Big Ten schools aside, Tillman's destination of UNLV ultimately plays into the official narrative, although it partly deviates from the “leave of absence” explanation.

In any case, Utah likely helped him in his bid to become eligible in 2019-20. Regardless of when he starts playing, Tillman has two years of eligibility remaining. The Rebels will play in Salt Lake City on Dec. 7, concluding a neutral-site series with BYU at Vivint Smart Home Arena. Utah hosts Central Arkansas at the Huntsman Center that day.


Key dates of the past eight months for Utah forward Donnie Tillman, who is transferring to UNLV:

Dec. 17, 2018 – Removed from the starting lineup for a home game vs. Florida A&M, with coach Larry Krystkowiak citing follow-through “other areas of these guys' lives” as part of personnel decisions.

Jan. 2, 2019 – Scores a career-high 22 points in an upset at Arizona State, making six 3-pointers and explaining, “I just had to look at myself in the mirror and remember the kind of player I am and the kind of belief I have in myself.”

Feb. 20 – Returns to the starting lineup due to forward Timmy Allen's injury and goes scoreless in 23 minutes of a loss at Washington.

Feb. 23 – Responds with a 16-point, 11-rebound game in a win at Washington State and effectively defends All-Pac-12 forward Robert Franks in the second half as Ute guard Sedrick Barefield says teammates have been “expecting that and waiting for that” from him.

March 14 – Leads Utah with 18 points in a 66-54 loss to Oregon in the Pac-12 tournament quarterfinals in Las Vegas and promises afterward to return as “more of a leader in 2019-20.”

May 24 – Announces his withdrawal from the NBA draft, via Utah news release, after working out for the Jazz and receiving a lukewarm public evaluation.

June 7 – “With a heavy heart,” expresses appreciation to Ute fans and Larry Krystkowiak for enabling him to be near his mother in what the school labels a “leave of absence.” Tillman tells the Deseret News he never used that phrase.

June 10 – Enters the NCAA transfer portal.

Monday – Confirms his transfer to UNLV, having visited the school last week, following trips to Rutgers and Illinois.