IOWA CITY — There never was much doubt about where Riley Till was going to go to college.
Coming out of Dubuque Wahlert High School, he had offers to play basketball at a few NCAA Division II schools. A couple of the Division I programs in the Dakotas also looked him over.
“But I just loved Iowa,” Till said. “I wanted to come and stay close to home.”
So he came. Without a scholarship. Without really knowing if or when he’d ever get a chance to do much on the court.
Now, in his third season on the Iowa campus, the 6-foot-7 forward has gotten a chance to do quite a bit. With Jack Nunge and C.J. Fredrick redshirting, Cordell Pemsl sidelined by knee surgery and assorted other players battling short-term injuries, Till has become a valuable Band-Aid for the 23rd-ranked Hawkeyes.
He and fellow walk-on Austin Ash each played about 20 minutes Saturday in a 110-64 victory over Savannah State, with Till contributing 10 points, three rebounds, two assists and two steals. It’s not the first time he has seen meaningful playing time this season. He played in the first half of a victory over Oregon in the 2K Empire Classic and a loss to Michigan State. He got in for 16 minutes against Alabama State.
“I’m very comfortable obviously with Riley and Austin,” Iowa coach Fran McCaffery said following Saturday’s game. “They’re smart, they’ve been around. This is not their first year. Ash is a weapon. He can really shoot it. Riley athletically … it’s rare that a 6-7 walk-on can come down on the break and try to dunk on two guys. … Those guys are legit players.”
With center Luka Garza currently sidelined by a sprained ankle, Till could be in for more extended time Saturday in the Hawkeyes’ final non-conference game against Bryant.
“Whatever it is with Luka — I don’t know how severe it happens to be — I feel good about my role and I’ll step up and do whatever the team needs me to do,” Till said. “I’m just kind of glad to get in there in any capacity.”
McCaffery is quick to point out that Till, who saw only mop-up duty in eight games last season, isn’t just being given playing time.
“It’s not like it just kind of fell to him because of the circumstances,” McCaffery said. “He kind of earned it anyway. He’s an athlete. He’s in his third year. He’s physically ready to do some things that maybe he wouldn’t have been two years ago.”
Till already had received plenty of exposure to Hawkeye basketball before enrolling in 2016. His sister Claire, who is engaged to San Francisco 49ers tight end George Kittle, played for the Iowa women’s team. Till’s mother, Shelley, was an analyst for the radio broadcasts of Iowa women’s games for 10 years and now works for the Big Ten Network.
Till also had played for the Iowa Barnstormers AAU team with Connor McCaffery, and he was best friends in high school with Pemsl.
“I’d say that was more just like a plus,” Till said. “Cordell’s been my best friend since we were playing baseball and basketball in elementary school. Obviously, he made his decision to come here before me. Whether he was coming here or not, I always wanted to go to Iowa. But the fact that he was also here was a huge plus because he was one of my great friends.”
As a walk-on, Till arrived with no guarantee that he’d ever see much playing time, but he was encouraged by his conversations with Coach McCaffery.
“He saw me as a guy who, if I worked my tail off, stepping into a bigger role and bigger role and bigger role,” Till said. “I never really limited myself mentally. I just came in here with that mindset every day for the past three years that I’ve got to keep getting better, I’ve got to keep getting better. Then opportunities will come. I just need to take advantage of them when I get them.”
He has followed a similar path to senior Nicholas Baer, who also started as a walk-on but became a huge source of energy off the bench and ultimately was named the Big Ten’s sixth man of the year in 2017.
“Obviously, Nicholas is the great example, the textbook example, of what can happen and what hard work can get you,” Till said. “So being able to see that right before I made my college decision, it kind of showed that coaches here give walk-ons a chance, an opportunity, that they believe in us just as much as anybody else.”
Baer, who was going into his third season in the program when Till arrived, said he immediately saw “Division I effort” in his new teammate.
“Riley’s done a phenomenal job so far, playing with a lot of energy, understanding defensive concepts, rebounding, just bringing a lot of energy and hustle to our team,” Baer said. “He’s been doing a great job so far and that’s what we need is that next-man-up mindset.”