Killian Tillie eased back into action with low-pressure, modest-minutes stints in his return from injury.
Last season. Twice.
That wasn’t the case in Tillie’s latest return from the injury list Tuesday night. The 6-foot-10 senior forward was in the starting lineup, showed off his diverse skill set and played a leading role as No. 8 Gonzaga held off UT Arlington 72-66.
Tillie felt every one of his 26-plus minutes in his first start since facing Ohio State in the 2018 NCAA Tournament.
“I’m a little tired, out of shape,” said Tillie, who had been sidelined by an Oct. 3 knee surgery. “But it felt good.”
Both teams felt his impact on the floor.
“No surprise,” said guard Admon Gilder, after witnessing Tillie’s 15 points and eight rebounds. “I came in the summer and I’ve been able to see the things he was able to do.”
Tillie’s return extends the rotation to eight and allows for more flexibility as the Zags (5-0) prepare for Saturday’s contest against CSU Bakersfield (2-3). The way Tuesday’s game played out offered insight into how minutes could be dispensed in close contests.
Filip Petrusev, Drew Timme and Anton Watson, who started in Tillie’s absence, had been combining for 74.5 minutes per game. That figure dropped to 57 against the Mavericks with Watson’s 7.5-minute decline the biggest of the trio, followed by Petrusev’s 6-minute decline.
Tillie has proven to be a “problem solver,” as head coach Mark Few has described the Frenchman. He can rebound, protect the rim and switch and defend shorter players. He stretches the floor with his 47% career 3-point shooting accuracy, but he’s also effective in the lane.
Against UT Arlington, Tillie had at least one instance when he made a high-low entry pass, grabbed a rebound and brought the ball down court and helped break a full-court press.
“He’s just a really, really good basketball player,” Few said. “Hopefully, the knee will respond to all this activity and not swell up and we’ll get him back out there Saturday.”
The Tillie-Petrusev pairing makes obvious sense, with Tillie’s perimeter and passing acumen and Petrusev doing his best work deeper in the lane. A Tillie-Timme pairing works, given Timme’s knack for scoring within 10 feet of the hoop.
Watson will see plenty of time backing up Tillie, but even a Tillie-Watson pairing sounds intriguing. Both are above-average passers with high basketball IQs. Both can function inside or outside. Both can guard multiple positions.
Watson has yet to establish himself beyond the 3-point line (0 of 5), prompting two teams thus far to sag off him on defense, but he was an effective outside shooter at Gonzaga Prep and on the AAU circuit. Opponents have dared Petrusev, also 0 of 5 on 3-pointers, to shoot from distance.
“He’s got an exceptional feel for the game,” Few said of Watson. “He knows when to pass and when to drive. (The Mavericks) were playing off him and he’s a capable shooter, and that’s a really hard thing for a freshman to digest all that stuff. We’re more than confident in him letting it fly.”
Tillie’s presence expands Gonzaga’s options. The Zags could go big with Petrusev or Timme at the ‘5,’ Tillie or Watson at the ‘4’ and Tillie or Watson at the ‘3.’ Junior wing Corey Kispert had a hot start to the season but he’s struggled the last two games with just six points on 2-of-18 shooting.
The Zags have time to tinker before heading to the Bahamas for the Battle 4 Atlantis and Wednesday’s opener against Southern Miss (1-3).
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