It could have ended so much better, but those words have been a recurring theme for Killian Tillie. His time at Gonzaga has been a double-edged sword; we’ve been able to enjoy one of the most skilled players in the country for four years, only because injuries prevented him from leaving school early. He’s treated us to sublime highs and been a part of crushing disappointments. C’est la vie.
It’s hard to believe, but Tillie came to Gonzaga in the same recruiting class as Zach Collins, Rui Hachimura, Zach Norvell Jr. and Jacob Larsen. It was also the year Johnathan Williams III, Nigel Williams-Goss and Jeremy Jones became eligible to play and the Zags snagged grad transfer Jordan Mathews. A lesser player could have disappeared amongst such talent, but Killian immediately moved into the 8-man rotation of probably the best team in Gonzaga history. Talented, athletic and smart, he and Zach Collins provided the lightning to starters Shem and JWIII’s thunder. Tillie and Collins went in as a pair never giving opponents front lines a break. They didn’t stand a chance.
Thanks to Killian, Zag fans had a new drinking game. The shot of John Stockton in the stands with the announcer stating, “he’s David’s father” drinking game was now replaced by the “Tillie comes from a volleyball family” requiring a shot. It soon became apparent Killian’s volleyball skills transferred well to the basketball court. He was a quick jumper, had great body control and was excellent at tipping the ball. Yeah, he had an athletic pedigree and could have been a great volleyball player, but his true expertise was on a different court.
Even as a freshman, his unique basketball skillset set him apart from other bigs. A finesse player who’s not afraid to bang, Tillie is as comfortable bringing the ball up court as he is setting up in the block. He has a sweet floater in the lane, a nice jump hook and is probably the best three-point shooter out there anytime he steps on a court. He’s proven to be an above average passer excelling in the high/low game, a sneaky good defender and always seems to make the right move. He was given the “Swiss Army Knife” label his freshman year, but it was already apparent he be so much more.
Two events towards the end of Tillie’s freshman season foretold things to come. The first being a broken ring finger on his right hand causing him to miss four games (including the home BYU loss killing the perfect regular season). The second was icing the National Championship semi-final game against South Caroling by sinking a key one and one to give the Zags a four-point lead with 2.2 seconds left. These events synopsize Killian’s next three years, incredible play and limiting injuries.
Killian’s sophomore season (17-18) required an almost complete. “reloading” for the Bulldogs. Lost from the previous year’s national final team were Karnowski (and his elf Rem), Williams- Goss, Mathews, Collins, Ryan Edwards and Bryan Alberts. Tillie was now expected to be a starter and carry a much larger workload for the team. A point Mark Few emphasized during that season’s exhibition game against the College of Idaho.
According to Killian, his effort at practice the week leading up to the game was less than stellar, so Few gave his starting spot to Rui. The motivational tool worked because when he entered the game, he took 14 shots including three 3’s and three free throws making them all for 28 points. His performance was an indication of things to come.
Killian’s sophomore season was probably his best and most complete at Gonzaga. He’d be second on the team in scoring (13.4 to 12.9 ppg), rebounds and blocks to JWIII. He’d start 35 of 37 games, average 26.2 minutes per contest and shoot a gawdy .479% from three. The reloading team would go on to win 32 games, including 17-1 in the WCC and win the WCC tournament behind a Tillie performance that was probably the highwater mark of his career.
In the three games in Las Vegas, against Loyola Marymount, San Francisco and BYU, Killian Tillie would score 24, 26 and 22 points respectively, go 28 of 36 from the field and shoot an incredible 13 of 14 from deep including 5 for 5 in the first two games. Of course, Killian won the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player giving credit to his teammates and using the French word “ensemble” to describe their collective effort. He also gave Dickie V a man-crush lasting two more years.
Sadly, Killian’s season would end on a low note as the Zags took the floor against in a Sweet Sixteen contest against Florida State at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. Tillie injured his hip at practice earlier in the week, warmed up with the team, but determined he could not play just before game time. Gonzaga would go on to lose the game 75 to 60 with a downtrodden Tillie watching from the bench. I’m not sure if it was because of the disappointment or lingering effect from the injury, but Killian decided for forego the NBA draft and return to Gonzaga for his junior season.
Tillie’s junior season (18-19) seemed doomed from the beginning becoming his annus horribilis. An ankle stress fracture was discovered in late October requiring surgery and his missing the first eight weeks of the season. He returned in January and played nine games before tearing a plantar fascia ligament in his foot causing him to miss another four weeks. He did return for the WCC tournament averaged only 13 minutes and 7 points over the two games, including a finals loss to St. Mary’s.
Tillie stated he was at about 85% of his capabilities when he did play. He did give us a flash of what could have been during the NCAA first round game against Fairleigh Dickinson. He went 7 for 8 from the field including 2 for 2 from deep with 4 great assists. In the Elite Eight loss to Texas Tech, he was limited to 11 minutes play making only one shot. Could a 100% Killian Tillie made the difference and returned Gonzaga to the Final Four?
His string of bad luck would continue after declaring for the NBA draft in April. He sprained his ankle in his first and only NBA workout with the Atlanta Hawks in early May. He was invited to but would miss the NBA draft combine in Chicago from May 14-19, because of the injury. It seems the only bright spot that season would be for us fans as he announced in late May he would be returning for Gonzaga for his senior season.
This past season, Tillie again returning to a team full of new faces. Though he had new teammates, his luck seemed to remain bad when it was announced just before Kraziness he’d had surgery to “clean up his knee”. He’d miss the season’s first four games.
Upon his return, he scored 15 against Texas Arlington and 13 against Cal Bakersfield before traveling to the Bahama’s for the Battle 4 Atlantis. His 20-point game in the final against Michigan was one of the game’s few bright spots and seemed to mark his full return. He followed that game up with double digit scoring in the wins against Washington and Arizona.
Following that Michigan loss, the team would win 14 straight games with Killian playing some great basketball until an ankle sprain against Santa Clara on 31 Jan would cause him to miss the next two games. He’d return from the ankle sprain and continue to have a great season averaging career highs of 13.6 points and 1.9 assists per game. Killian would drop 19 points against USF helping the Zags win the WCC Tournament semi-final and they would beat St. Mary’s in final avenging last year’s loss
The rebuilding team turned out to be one of the nation’s best squads, ready to play their first weekend of the NCAA tournament at home in Spokane as the #1 seed in the West. Hollywood couldn’t have scripted it any better, the over-achieving team with Tillie as their unlucky and oft-injured star seeking redemption and final glory. All the stars seemed to have aligned for a Gonzaga return to the Final Four, then the quarantine happened.
Yeah, it could have ended so much better……… but damn it sure was good while it lasted. Killian Tillie was just so much fun to watch and so easy to root for. He played with joie de vivre that was contagious, both for the fans and his teammates. He didn’t come across as a vocal leader, but I remember him correcting Rui for missing a defensive assignment last season and I’m sure his leadership contributed to the success of this year’s squad. Gonzaga fans were lucky to get him and even luckier to have him for four seasons.
Killian is currently projected as a late 2nd round draft pick on most draft boards he has the skillset and basketball I.Q to be a long-term NBA contributor. Hopefully some NBA GM has the foresight to grab him early and we’ll be able to continue enjoying watching play for years to come. Bon chance Killian Tillie, you will be missed.