The Eastern York High School graduate has had a successful collegiate career, but has one final year as the leader of the Raiders and keep them heading in the right direction.
Austin Tillotson is wise beyond his years.
That much is evident when he pauses after each question he's asked and carefully chooses the words he uses to answer.
On the court for Colgate University, the senior displays the same poise as the team's point guard and floor general. But the coolness he shows now hasn't always been there for the York County standout, and he'll be the first person to admit that.
As a junior at Eastern York High School, he committed to play college basketball at NCAA Division I Monmouth University. By his senior year, the coach that was recruiting him was no longer with the program — a red flag for Tillotson, but one that he chose to look past. When he arrived on the West Long Branch, New Jersey, campus for his freshman year of college, he made an instant impact for the Hawks. He started in 18 of the 31 games, averaging 6.1 points, 2.0 assists and 1.5 rebounds per game. Still, he never got settled at the school.
"I just didn't, personally, feel right," he said. "...I just made a young decision, and when the coach that recruited me got fired, or resigned, I forget which happened, I should've maybe stepped back and then re-examined the situation and taken a look at some other schools, because I wasn't sure about the new coach that was coming in. But, I still ended up just going and that was a mistake."
Tillotson isn't afraid to admit that now, nor was he afraid to accept that feeling after his freshman year, allowing him the presence of mind to step back and reconsider his college options.
There can be a fear in transferring. When an athlete moves from one Division I program to another, he or she has to sit out for a year. For Tillotson, however, that was probably the best decision he could've made, both as a student and a basketball player.
"I thought I made a really adult decision at such a young age, to step back and re-evaluate where I was at in my life and the environment that I was in," he said. "And then I switched it up and went to Colgate."
Developing his game: Everything about Tillotson's selection of Colgate felt comfortable — probably much like his initial recruitment and commitment to Monmouth.
He knew Raiders coach Matt Langel years before he was even thinking about playing college basketball, when Langel was still an assistant at Temple under Fran Dunphy. At the time, Tillotson was logging hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles per week, traveling back and forth to New Jersey, where he played for the Jersey Shore Warriors AAU program. On top of that, one of his AAU teammates, Matt McMullen, also played at Colgate, which is located in Hamilton, New York. Plus, the institution itself has the prestige of being one of the top academic universities in the country. It was an opportunity that Tillotson couldn't let go to waste.
"It just made my situation more of a home feel," Tillotson said. "And I just figured that all of those different aspects just came together, and that's why I chose Colgate.”
When Tillotson arrived at Colgate, some 260-plus miles from his home, he had to sit out his first year there. For someone who's made a name for himself on the court, that year on the sidelines was, perhaps, the biggest reason why he's had such success on the court.
"The good thing, at Monmouth I got experience as a freshman, so I knew what I had to become as a player," Tillotson said. "I held my own as a freshman, but I didn't perform to the levels that I did from my sophomore year and on. So, I knew how far I needed to go as a player, and when you can look yourself in the eye and say that you gotta improve, that's a good thing. Then, I had a year off to do exactly that."
An instant leader: The year of practicing and preparing for each game, but then dressing in street clothes come game day, can be a long one for a college athlete.
Tillotson, however, used it as motivation. As a result, the instant he stepped on the court for his sophomore season, he became a leader of the team.
"I feel as though, every team I've been on in my life, I've been in that role, so I've expected it out of myself," he said. "Just because it's a larger spotlight, doesn't mean the way I approach the game and the way I approach leading teams changes. So, right when I touched the Colgate uniform, I considered myself a leader and I considered myself as someone who could push the team to get where they want to get to."
He started in 30 of the Raiders' 31 games as a redshirt sophomore in 2013-14, only missing one because of illness. He averaged 13.3 points per game, second on the team, while also adding a team-high 4.4 assists per game. He earned Patriot League All-First Team and Third Team honors from two separate college basketball media publications.
By his junior year, Tillotson took his game to the next level. He started in every game for Colgate during the 2014-15 season, averaging 10.7 points per game and leading the team in assists (4.8 per game), steals (40) and minutes played, setting a program record by totaling 1,100 minutes. The Raiders finished the year a game under .500 overall at 16-17, but they shined in Patriot League action, going 12-6 and finishing just a game back of first-place Bucknell.
Colgate faltered come conference tournament time, however, losing in the semifinals to sixth-seeded American University and missing out on an opportunity to make it back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1996.
Going out on top: This year, Tillotson's long basketball odyssey enters its final season — and he's driven to make it a successful one.
Named a captain going into the season, Tillotson has a tall task in front of him. The Raiders are a young group and will need to work through early-season growing pains if they want to get to where they expect to be come postseason time.
Colgate is sitting at 2-4 on the season and has two tough road games looming in the next five days, at TCU and Syracuse. Tillotson is leading the team in scoring (11.5 points per game), assists (6.2 per game) and minutes (35.3 per game).
Despite the team's early-season struggles, Tillotson achieved a milestone in the Raiders' last game against Binghamton, reaching 1,000 career college points. He should also eclipse the 1,000-point mark for his Colgate career later in the season. Still, he refuses to let his individual accomplishments interfere with the larger team goals, another sign of his maturity and leadership.
"It's an accomplishment," he said modestly. "Anytime you make an accomplishment, you feel good inside. You feel a little bit of joy. But, at the same time, there's a lot more things other than getting 1,000 points. I'm trying to get our team to compete for championships and 1,000 points was the last thing on my mind during the Binghamton game.”
Tillotson realizes that Colgate has only ever been to two NCAA Tournaments, coming in back-to-back years in 1995 and 1996, but, that's the furthest thing from his mind at the moment.
"You just gotta be realistic," he said. "We have to be thinking about way more things than the NCAA Tournament at this point. We need to focus on each game at a time. ... It's hard for me to answer this question because I don't think we're an NCAA Tournament team yet. But, that doesn't mean we can't get to that level, but it's important for me to stay in the moment as a leader and think about how we can improve each and every day, and then, if we improve enough, the NCAA Tournament dream may come true.”
Tillotson is a realist and is not prone to giving simple cliché answers. That's not a what a leader does.
He's come a long way from the immature high school kid who made a difficult decision and then spent an entire year of eligibility knowing that it was the wrong one. Still, it was instrumental in getting him to where he is now.
Tillotson doesn't want to think about what's next in his life. As long as there are college basketball games left to be played, he needs to remain in the moment.
He has a team to lead.
"I'm just trying to stay in the moment," he said. "...Until college is over, I'm not even thinking about it again. I'm just staying in the moment and once the season is over with, which I don't want it to be, I'd rather it be later rather than sooner, then I'll just make a decision from there.”
— Reach Patrick Strohecker at email@example.com