EAST LANSING, Mich. — Xavier Tillman has had to grow up fast on and off the basketball court.
The Michigan State forward was forced to transform from being a role-playing reserve to a key starter late in the regular season when Nick Ward broke his left hand.
BRACKETS: Check yours | Print | Follow the interactive
Tillman became a father as a senior in high school two years ago. He lives with 2-year-old daughter, Ayanna, and fiancee, Tamia Todd, in a two-bedroom apartment near the Breslin Center.
"There's nothing bigger than being a father," he said Tuesday after practice. "That's like the pinnacle of being a man."
#FinalFour Power Rankings from @TheAndyKatz!— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) April 1, 2019
1. Michigan State
3. Texas Tech
How would you rank 'em? #MarchMadness pic.twitter.com/NxSl7qdEwd
Tillman and the second-seeded Spartans are two wins away from reaching the pinnacle of college basketball.
Michigan State will face third-seeded Texas Tech on Saturday night in the Final Four for a shot at playing the winner of the Virginia-Auburn game for the NCAA title.
Several weeks later, Tillman is planning to get married and hopes to already be wearing a ring emblazoned with national champions.
"Yeah, that's the goal," he said. "The spring of two rings."
Each of the previous two springs, Tillman accomplished his mission to lose weight. He left Grand Rapids Christian High School and enrolled at Michigan State in 2017 with 276 pounds lumped on his 6-8 frame.
He worked out relentlessly and improved his eating habits, leading to him losing about 20 pounds after his freshman year in college and almost 20 more going into his sophomore season.
After averaging 2.8 points in 8.7 minutes per game as a freshman, his improved conditioning helped him take on a larger role this season. And, it became even bigger when Ward's injury put Tillman in the starting lineup Feb. 20 against Rutgers.
FINAL FOUR: This year's FInal Four chock full of standout veterans | 19 fun facts
He responded with a career-high 19 points — a total he matched in the regional final against top-seeded Duke — and 10 rebounds in the win over the Scarlet Knights.
Overall in his breakout season, he's averaging 10.1 points, 7.3 rebounds and 1.7 blocks as a defender quick enough to switch on screens on the outside and to get back inside to swat or alter shots.
"I had more opportunities to expand my game and be more aggressive," Tillman said.
Tillman has been held to single digits in scoring just twice since Ward's injury and in one of those games, he had nine points and 11 rebounds in a third win over Michigan to win the Big Ten tournament. Ward has returned to play, but he's coming off the bench behind Tillman.
"He got some confidence," Michigan State coach Tom Izzo said. "He got more minutes. All those things help. And he's done what people tell you-you should do. He's taken the ball and he's run with it. He's gotten his opportunity and he's made the best of it."This article was written by Larry Lage from The Associated Press and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.