Gonzaga’s breakthrough to the NCAA basketball championship game two years ago not only put the Zags in a new and celestial territory, it changed the way people look at them. So, as they assembled pieces for the 2018-19 season and began drawing consensus preseason top-five acclaim nationally, I found myself switching the operative question from, “What’s it going to take for them to make the Final Four?” to “What would keep them from doing it?”
Soon after, Killian Tillie went down with a stress fracture of the ankle, reminding us that the best-laid plans can go poof at the blink of a bone scan. Tillie is expected to be out until about the end of December, which is both good news and bad. If healthy, he’ll have plenty of time to be re-integrated into the lineup before the rigors of March. But he’s going to miss the games that will say a lot about the Zags’ positioning in the NCAA tournament bracket.
With the season starting next week, some notions about what Tillie’s injury means:
First, and Zag fans might want to knock wood at this, but the program has been relatively fortunate over the years at not sustaining a season-torpedoing succession of injuries. Yes, there have been severe setbacks in the 20-year run of NCAA tournaments, from Mike Nilson’s achilles tear in 2000 to Przemek Karnowski’s back injury in 2015-16, and in between, Kevin Pangos’ season-long ordeal with turf toe in 2013-14. (And for one, brutal half, Gary Bell Jr.’s ankle that denied him at the break of the Wichita State apocalypse in 2013.)
Tillie, in fact, has had it about as bad as anybody in a Zag uniform. He missed 10 games two years ago leading into the WCC tournament with a severe ankle sprain, and a hip problem took him out of GU’s Sweet 16 matchup against Florida State last season. Now this.
First thing I thought of when Tillie’s injury news broke? Corey Kispert. Not because he’s a facsimile of Tillie – he’s 6-6, not 6-10, and is a swingman, not a stretch-four – but because the trickle-down from Tillie’s injury means Kispert will get more key minutes, and let’s not forget, Kispert was playing well enough at the beginning of his freshman season to be a starter at the three spot. Indications are, he’s had a stellar fall camp. Freshman big Filip Petrusev more closely mirrors Tillie’s skills, but I’d look for Kispert to emerge.
Let’s consider the NCAA bracket implications from Tillie’s injury. As always, the basketball committee will give lip service to how a team has fared with and without the injured player. The problem here for Gonzaga is pretty simple: If Tillie indeed doesn’t return until after the real bullets have been fired in November and December, it’s going to be difficult to assess the Zags with him, because the WCC schedule is so forgiving.
Say they blow through the WCC schedule with one loss. It’s going to be easy for skeptics to write that off to a soft conference.
Some struggles before the New Year wouldn’t be a deal-breaker in March, but surely the potential is there to drop a seed line or more because of some heavyweight losses.
So let’s look at it like this: I see six big-time challenges on the schedule in November and December. (OK, this is entirely unscientific, subject to breakthroughs by other teams and breakdowns by the Zags, but hear me out.) Those would be the latter two games at the Maui Invitational (against either Arizona or Iowa State and whatever the final day brings – possibly Duke); at Creighton Dec. 1; Washington Dec. 5; Tennessee in Phoenix Dec. 9; and at North Carolina Dec. 15.
I’d set an over/under on wins for that six-pack at 3.5. (Among other things, the challenge of Gonzaga's final day in Maui will depend heavily on its results the first two days.) So in my mind, if the Zags can squeeze four victories from that half-dozen, it would be a triumph coming out of pre-conference play. And assuming no other missteps, that would curb the March-bracket damage from Tillie’s absence to one seed line – if that.