CHAMPAIGN — Donnie Tillman played perhaps his best basketball in the final five games of the 2018-19 season. The Utah sophomore forward averaged 14.4 points, 4.2 rebounds and 2.4 assists while shooting 52 percent from the field, 41 percent from three-point range and 83 percent at the free-throw line as the Utes played out the string in their 17-14 season.
The biggest difference in those four regular season games and early exit from the Pac-12 tournament to eventual champs Oregon? Tillman was back in the starting lineup — a position he held the first nine games of the season before winding up on the bench through the majority of Pac-12 play.
Tillman's inconsistent place in the Utah rotation is something Alex Markham, who covers the Utes for Rivals.com, said he saw as a contributing factor to Tillman's decision to transfer. The 6-foot-7, 225-pound forward visited Rutgers this past weekend and, per CBS Sports' Jon Rothstein, will visit Illinois on Wednesday. The Illini will also host four-star Class of 2020 guard DJ Steward from Whitney Young on Wednesday for an unofficial visit, first reported by 247Sports' Evan Daniels.
"It's going to take a toll on anybody when you know you're the guy, on your best day, that is one of the top players in the entire Pac-12 and you're finding yourself on the bench," Markham said about Tillman. The Utah sophomore played as many as 35 minutes and as few as 15 in his reserve role.
"You get thrown back in the starting lineup, and instantly your confidence boosts," Markham continued. "I know not everybody around the program agreed he should still be coming off the bench. It did work out to his benefit. There were kind of some rumblings like don't be surprised if he bounces."
Tillman was named the Pac-12 Sixth Man of the Year following the 2018-19 season thanks to his production off the bench. The Detroit native and Findley Prep (Nev.) graduate averaged 10.5 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.6 assists while shooting 36.1 percent from three-point range for the Utes.
Consistency in playing time wasn't Tillman's only struggle in that regard, according to Markham.
"It all depends on the type of Donnie you're going to get," he said. "Sometimes you'd see him out there and he'd look like a surefire NBA guy. Other times he would just disappear. Donnie at his peak would be a great get, but it's about keeping that consistency with him."
Tillman's decision to leave Utah all happened in the last month. He put his name in the NBA draft, had a single workout with the Utah Jazz on May 24 and then pulled his name out of the draft to return to the Utes by the May 29 deadline. Ten days later Utah announced Tillman was taking a "leave of absence" to be with his mother, Donna Holmes, who suffers from epilepsy and grand mal seizures. Three days after that word broke that Tillman was transferring from Utah.
"His mom has had a lot of ongoing health issues, and Donnie's really close to his mom," Markham said. "It's definitely valid where he's wanting to be closer to her, but it's also going to be interesting to see where he actually does end up."
Illinois has space to add Tillman with one open scholarship still remaining even after adding Belgian forward Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk earlier this month. Tillman also fits the Illini's need in the frontcourt given he can play either forward position.
The only question around Tillman's transfer is when he would be eligible to play. He would have to receive a waiver to play immediately, and if he doesn't, he would sit one year to play two.
"Everybody was really excited because here's a guy that's really well-rounded offensively and defensively and could play multiple positions," Markham said about how Tillman was viewed at Utah. "He was expected to do a lot of big things at Utah, and it looked like it was going to start happening with his freshman production.
"He could have had a huge positive impact this next year. Guys go through struggles in their personal life, which is what he's going through with his mom. Utah was expecting him to rebound and have a really good year next year. He wasn't going to be the sixth man again next year. It was a huge blow for Utah."