You name it, he seems to have had it in his three years at Gonzaga – sprained ankle and a month out during the Final Four year; serious hip injury that truncated the Zags’ run with the Sweet 16 in 2018, and likely caused Tillie to postpone his immediate NBA plans; stress fracture of the ankle and surgery last November; and now, a partially torn foot ligament that imperils the rest of his season, and possibly, his career at GU.
I’ve always believed Gonzaga has been fairly fortunate with injuries during its golden age (with exceptions such as Przemek Karnowski’s serious back ailment in 2015-16). But Tillie seems bent on upending that narrative all by himself.
So you feel badly for him, and in a sport where the opportunities tend to be transient, you also feel a pang for his team and its chances in March/April. In the month since his return from surgery, Tillie hadn’t yet been Tillie, but we know what he can do. His coach, Mark Few, long ago characterized him as as a guy who quickly understood things, who gets it, somebody whose instincts make the machine run more smoothly.
Which brings us to today’s question: How much more of a sweet purr could anybody bring to the Gonzaga apparatus right now? What the Zags did to poor Saint Mary’s the other night was almost criminal, hanging a 94-46 defeat on the Gaels. This is hardly a vintage SMC team, but, in the words of a football coach I covered once, it isn’t Squawhockey Canyon, either.
From the outset, the Zags were lofting Cirque du Soleil lob passes to crashing bigs and banging threes off behind-the-back feeds. It was something to see, a performance as much as it was a victory, and it’s lamentable to think that Tillie’s absence might chip away at the chance of watching such theater.
To me, it’s become obvious that the front line the Zags are unloading on the WCC is something the league has rarely, if ever, seen. Think of the good bigs that have come out of the WCC in the last 15-20 years (outside Gonzaga) – Omar Samhan, Jock Landale, Brandon Davies, John Bryant, Eric Mika, Stacy Davis, Brad Waldow. Almost always, they’ve been marginal NBA talents. Now, in Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke, the Zags are showing off two guys projected to be first-round draft picks.
The league is being overpowered by these guys, along with a cast that has Gonzaga, at 1.28 points per possession, far ahead of the field in KenPom’s offensive-efficiency rankings.
So far, in what was touted as a better WCC, it’s not a fair fight. According to Pomeroy, the Zags’ composite margin of 311 points through 10 league games – or a 31.1-point average victory – is tops through that period since 1998. Second on that list was the ’17 Zags with 280 points. The most impressive of the top five is No. 4, the 1998 Kansas team, playing in a far tougher league, with a 241-point margin of victory over 10 games.
Looking for a comp to judge the Zags’ dominance of the WCC, I hit upon Jerry Tarkanian’s UNLV teams that once laid waste to the Big West Conference. He had three clubs unbeaten in league play (1987, 1991, 1992), and the one that sticks out was the fearsome ’91 team, led by Larry Johnson (he averaged 22 points and 10 rebounds), Stacey Augmon, Greg Anthony and Anderson Hunt.
This was the team mentioned as among the best in history, coming off a 30-point thrashing of Duke in the 1990 championship game – and unbeaten until it met its end against the Blue Devils in the national semis in Indianapolis. The ’91 Rebels ran up a 316-point margin through 10 games, just a touch higher than the current Zags. The pace slowed slightly, however, and UNLV finished at 29.6. (The Rebels did it in style in nine of their 18 games, eclipsing the 100-point barrier.)
How does GU stack up against the best previous Gonzaga teams? That ’17 Final Four team that’s second on Ken Pomeroy’s list had a 28.1-point average margin through 17 WCC games, but the winning streak came to an end in the season finale against BYU.
The ’14-15 Elite Eight club had a more modest 16.1-point margin of victory before BYU also ended that streak on Senior Night at the Kennel.
Aside from the ’19 and ’17 GU teams, maybe the most comparable club – in terms of potential – was the 2013 squad that was upset by Wichita State in the NCAA second round. That team, which surely looked to have Final Four chops, ran the table over 16 WCC games, with an average margin of 19.4 points – more than 11 behind the current team’s pace.
Now the 2018-19 Zags have to try to fulfill their dreams without Tillie, at least for a while. For one night, at least, they seemed to be trying to say it's doable.