There is no sugar coating the news from earlier today. Killian Tillie is out for approximately eight weeks with a stress fracture in his ankle. No team, not even a top-5 team, just rebounds from that situation.
The initial reaction was extreme panic, and that is justifiable. Tillie is as huge of a piece to the puzzle as any Zag, and we are just a few months removed from a surprise Tillie injury ensuring an earlier than desired exit from March Madness.
So, let’s pause for a second, and breathe together.
Yeah, the Zags season opens on Nov. 1, in an exhibition game, against Central Washington University. If you want the time to try something new, Thursday will be that time. The Zags are still three weeks away from the Maui Invitational, when the onslaught of the non-conference begins. That is more than enough time to adapt to the situation.
And, despite the departure of Jacob Larsen this offseason, the Zags roster is versatile enough to absorb this blow. Look at your new starting five, for example:
- Josh Perkins
- Zach Norvell
- Geno Crandall
- Rui Hachimura
- Brandon Clarke
Not too shabby right? That still leaves you Corey Kispert, Joel Ayayi, Jeremy Jones, and Filip Petrusev to come off the bench. The front court depth isn’t the strongest, but there are ways the Zags can get around this.
One of the key things to remember is that Petrusev is as strong of a big man recruit as the Zags have had in a long while. He crushed it for Serbia during the FIBA U-18 over the summer. He scored 15 points in the high school national championship his senior year with Montverde Academy. Petrusev is about as seasoned of a freshman as they come.
The second thing to remember is the oft-forgotten about Jones. Jones is a big and lanky body. Although he hasn’t shown an ability to score consistently, his athleticism has shown an ability to hold its own defensively. The Zags have five more fouls to give here, and we should probably expect to see Jones get some more minutes early on.
The real pressure will be on the backcourt to provide a bit of extra firepower, and with Crandall (theoretically) popping into the starting five, that shouldn’t be much of an issue. What the Zags will miss most about Tillie’s departure, on the offensive end, is his ability to stretch the floor. He is one of the top-ranked three-point shooting big men in the nation.
Unless Hachimura has a new found ability to consistently threaten from long range, that leaves the Gonzaga front court looking a little bit more one-sided than it has the past five years. Arguably, the backcourt is in a perfectly capable position to pick up the slack. Perkins is one of the better three-point shooters in a history of great three-point shooters to role through Gonzaga. Crandall shot 41 percent from three-point range.
If the backcourt is able to punish from long range, it will free up Clarke around the hoop and Hachimura for his midrange game. Spacing for the two of those players is key, and Gonzaga can operate with the more than classic high-low game (remember, Mark Few’s bread and butter is the big man that can’t shoot, not the big man that can).
The key here is that although the depth is tested, the teams that run nine or 10 players deep during the NCAA Tournament generally do it because of crazed defensive schemes or for schticks. Villanova, last year’s national championship winner, ran a seven-man rotation.
As a Zag fan, you always have to think of the non-conference in terms of potential wins for seeding later. There isn’t much sugar coating Tillie’s injury here. Coming out of that onslaught unscathed went from near-impossible to probably impossible. That said, don’t forget: The Zags defeated a top-10 ranked Michigan State team in a meaningless scrimmage, and Tillie didn’t play that either.
This loss hurts, probably hurts Tillie more, but it isn’t the end of the world.