Tillie’s latest injury puts Petrusev in spotlight

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LAST WEEK

Sad.

Sad, sad, sad.

In a week during which the Zags just beat the tar out of two supposedly decent teams by a combined 78 points and rose to No 3 in the Associated Press poll, it all seemed overshadowed by the gloom that suddenly seemed to engulf the program.

By now, we know that Killian Tillie — the popular Frenchman who was going to add that extra shooting, rebounding and defense to an already terrific team — most likely won’t play any meaningful role for Gonzaga again this season.

Slowly recovering from surgery on a broken ankle and just beginning to fit in to the Zags juggernaut lineup, Killie now has suffered a partial tear of the plantar fascia ligament in that same right foot he spent so long rehabbing.

Tillie landed awkwardly after scoring on a soft jump hook in Thursday night’s 93-63 hammering of San Francisco.

He was in pain instantly, limped to the Gonzaga bench, and by Saturday afternoon, the diagnosis was in.

Coach Mark Few was honest about the personal disappointment for Tillie, who now has suffered three serious injuries in less than a year.

He sat out the Zags’ Sweet 16 loss to Florida State in last year’s NCAA tournament with a horrible oblique strain that took months to fully heal, then broke the ankle in a preseason practice.

“Heartbreaking,” Few said with noticeable emotion on Saturday night after the Zags had dismantled Saint Mary’s to the tune of 94-46.

Gonzaga put the hammer down on their once-rival Gaels with a wicked urgency, rolling up a 53-20 lead by halftime.

The beating was so awful that Saint Mary’s — which entered the game ranked 12th nationally in offensive efficiency and 45th overall in the new NET rankings — did not register a single assist until there were less than four minutes to play and Gonzaga had emptied the bench.

“This one was for Killian,” said Brandon Clarke, who scored 24 points with some savage dunks as it seems he’s becoming even better offensively every week.

Clarke had 20 points and 16 rebounds against San Francisco, with both those totals coming in limited minutes as Gonzaga rolled up such huge leads.

Clarke’s mention of playing for Tillie reflected the feeling of the entire squad and coaching staff, who are understandably devastated.

The problem on the court, of course, is that the Zags now will have to play a lot of games for Killian.

Few spoke of getting his versatile big man back for the postseason, but it’s very possible that — what with getting the rust off yet again — Tillie might play nothing but a handful of token minutes in the tournament.

Assuming he can play at all.

If he had not been injured last week, the Zags — who know him and see him in practice every day — believed to a man that Tillie was the final piece of a team they believed could win it all.

Just before this latest injury, senior point guard Josh Perkins assessed Tillie’s re-entry into the lineup this way: “He knows what he was, and he’s going to be there again.”

Tillie is such a critical weapon because he’s rugged inside, but can step out and nail 3-balls as well as anyone in the country — 48 percent last year.

The Zags can stretch out teams at will with Tillie healthy and playing.

Now that hope, if not quite gone, has become a distinct longshot.

The focus suddenly falls on Filip Petrusev, the 6-foot-11 freshman from Serbia.

Gonzaga desperately needs that third big man to pound the glass and, perhaps more crucially, allow Clarke and Rui Hachimura to get a bit of rest so their minutes don’t turn into outright fatigue — which happened earlier in the year when Tillie was out.

One thing seems to be pretty evident: Gonzaga can cope (if that’s the right word for a series of slaughters) for the rest of the WCC schedule.

The blowouts of San Francisco and Saint Mary’s weren’t quite expected, at least not to the extent that the Zags produced.

USF tried roughing up the Zags physically, but it was a useless exercise.

Saint Mary’s, to be honest, couldn’t do anything. That game looked as though fans had been summoned from the stands to suit up for coach Randy Bennett’s team.

The Zags haven’t really humiliated Saint Mary’s in a long, long time — but this one was without mercy, and Bennett couldn’t do anything to stop it.

So far, no conference team has been able to control the Zags’ inside game. Not at all.

Clarke and Hachimura have simply had their way in the paint, and with Tillie rounding into form, it seemed …

Well, it’s no use wondering how it seemed.

THIS WEEK

If somebody is going to give the Zags more than a glorified scrimmage in the conference, it could happen soon.

The Zags shouldn’t encounter too much resistance during a visit to Loyola Marymount on Thursday night, but Saturday evening they visit San Diego — a veteran team that played stubbornly and pretty well in an 85-69 loss at The Kennel that was closer than the final score.

The Toreros hung around until crunch time, when the Zags got six straight defensive stops — Few called them “kills’ — and produced points each time.

But until that decisive stretch, Gonzaga had not been able to stop San Diego’s 6-7 forward Isaiah Pinero, who scored a career-high 30 points and seemed to find open shots both inside and outside.

San Diego also was missing star guard Olin Carter III (and his 16 points per game) in Spokane, and Carter will be available for the rematch.

Oddly, the Toreros who looked so sharp in The Kennel have had only mixed success against the rest of the conference.

They’ve just come off a short road trip up to the Los Angeles area, where they hung on to beat Loyola Marymount 65-63, but then lost 70-67 to Pepperdine in Malibu.

San Diego will entertain BYU on the Thursday night before the Zags hit town.

For Gonzaga, we’ll get to see how Few decides to dole out minutes now that Tillie is gone.

Petrusev obviously will be handed some of that work, and he chipped in with 15 points in the rout of Saint Mary’s.

It’s a decent guess that Few will choose something of a “horses for courses” approach, using Petrusev when heavy lifting is required on the glass.

The big Serb is not Tillie, but he’s a decent shooter — and critically for big guys who get fouled a lot inside, Petrusev is an 85 percent free throw shooter.

Few is not averse to calling on Jeremy Jones, and even the 6-foot Geno Crandall, for some specific defensive assignments.

If nothing else this week, it will be interesting to see what adjustments Few has in mind for San Diego and the matchups that frustrated the Zags for so long in Spokane.

The Zags are still sitting right on that edge of a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, and one slip-up in the conference will undoubtedly doom them.

Few will do his best to keep everyone focused, but the sudden loss of Tillie will have an emotional effect on the whole squad.

Let’s see if they can keep those feelings off the court, and continue taking care of business,

THE STORY

Welcome to the spotlight, Filip Petrusev.

The big kid from Serbia wasn’t expecting to be a key to Gonzaga’s success in the NCAA tournament.

The freshman couldn’t have thought he’d get any significant minutes while learning the ropes during preseason. Gonzaga was loaded, especially in the frontcourt.

Then Tillie wrecked his ankle, Petrusev was tossed into the rotation and did some things well.

But some other things …

Petrusev is effective in the paint on offense. He’s got good feet, an understanding of how to get to the hoop, and a nice little short jumper.

In 12.3 minutes per game so far, he’s averaged 7.3 points and 3.2 rebounds.

Typical for a first-year player, Petrusev’s shortcomings have been on defense and rebounding — in both cases because he didn’t quite understand proper positioning.

The coaches also hounded him to be more aggressive.

But that was in his first stint as a regular sub who was a cinch to get minutes — but not necessarily in crunch time.

We may see a different Filip Petrusev this time around.

“Don’t worry about him,” Clarke said. “Since Killian came back, (Filip) has been a monster in practice, showing the coaches he’s improved on what they asked.”

Few agreed, conceding that Petrusev has picked some of the defensive nuances while also becoming harder to handle on the boards.

Petrusev likes his chances to make a difference.

“I didn’t know as much what to expect when it was early in the season,” he said.

“When (Tillie) came back, I watched and practiced harder, and now I’m more prepared. More experienced.”

It’s tough enough to be a freshman on a team that wants to win a national championship.

But being a freshman who looks at the roster and feels he has a full year to toughen up and learn the tricks of top-level college hoops …

And then finds out he may be the guy who potentially could win or lose a Final Four game?

It’s a lot to ask, and Petrusev knows he’s not going to be Killian Tillie.

Being a much-improved Filip Petrusev, though, just might be enough.

• • •

Steve Cameron is a columnist for The Press. He’s a former sports writer with the Denver Post and Kansas City Star and the author of 13 sports books. He’s hosted radio programs specifically on college basketball. Email: scameron@cdapress.com

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