UNLV had just finished basketball practice at Mendenhall Center on Tuesday morning when coach T.J. Otzelberger gathered the players.
He told them the NCAA had approved the waiver for junior forward Donnie Tillman, who transferred from Utah, to play this season.
“I can’t wait to tell my mom,” an elated Tillman said in a short media interview 10 minutes later. “I just thank God. I’m excited to get to play. I’m excited to be here. I’m excited to be a Rebel.”
The NCAA’s decision immediately increased expectations for the Rebels this season. UNLV likely still won’t contend for the Mountain West title, but the Rebels, in Otzelberger’s first season, might have more of a say in how the race plays out.
Tillman, a 6-foot-7-inch forward who played at Findlay Prep, was the Pac-12 Conference Sixth Man of the Year last season after averaging 10.5 points and 5.3 rebounds. He started 15 of 31 games for the Utes and likely will be an opening-day starter when the Rebels play Purdue Fort Wayne on Nov. 5 at the Thomas & Mack Center.
Otzelberger extolled Tillman’s ability to run the fast break, pass and shoot.
“Donnie’s a mismatch problem,” Otzelberger said. “He’s really physical with the ball. So he’s a very complete player on both ends of the floor, and I think he can be really impactful for us.”
Otzelberger said Tillman fits perfectly into his system, which emphasizes pushing pace, spacing and creating opportunities for 3-point shots.
“He’s a dream come true from an analytics standpoint,” Otzelberger said. “He’s a guy that doesn’t settle very often for those midrange shots. It’s very valuable to have a guy with that skill set.”
The timing of the NCAA’s decision gives the Rebels about a month to prepare knowing Tillman will be in the lineup.
“I know I’ll be a valuable piece for this year,” Tillman said. “So now I can sit down with Coach and figure out my role.”
Tillman announced July 29 he was transferring to UNLV. He visited Illinois and Rutgers before choosing the Rebels.
UNLV could have Tillman for two years. But depending on what kind of season he puts together, he might opt to turn professional in 2020. If he chooses to stay, Tillman will be part of a veteran team in 2020-21 that will have players such as South Dakota State transfer David Jenkins Jr. and four-star recruit Nick Blake.
But if this is Tillman’s only season in a UNLV uniform, the Rebels will take it and make the most of it. He and center Mbacke Diong likely will make up the frontcourt, with Elijah Mitrou-Long, Amauri Hardy and Jonah Antonio starting at the three guard positions.
Otzelberger cautioned it’s too early to make out the starting lineup, but given the NCAA’s decision, he now has more clarity as to what it could look like.
“We just heard (the ruling) at the end of practice,” Diong said. “(Tillman) will be a big piece of this process, so that’s great news.”