SALT LAKE CITY — Killian Tillie broke out in a big grin when asked about Utah and the trips from France he used to make out here when he was a kid.
“Yeah, I came here a lot, I knew this place when I was way younger,” said Gonzaga’s 6-10 forward, who is expected to be a big part of the Bulldogs’ NCAA run, which begins Thursday against Fairleigh Dickinson (5:27 p.m.) at Vivint Arena.
The reason for Tillie’s frequent visits to the Beehive State was that his older brother, Kim, was a member of the University of Utah basketball team under coaches Ray Giacoletti and Jim Boylen. In fact, the younger Tillie came this close to playing for the Utes like his older brother did.
“It was a choice between Utah and Gonzaga,” said Tillie. “I was close to going with coach K (Larry Krystkowiak). I really wanted to go, but I also wanted to go my own way and not follow my brother’s footsteps and that’s why I chose Gonzaga.”
When Giacoletti recruited Kim Tillie from France as a 17-year-old, he called him “freakishly athletic.” Gonzaga assistant coach Donny Daniels, a former Ute assistant under coach Rick Majerus, calls Killian Tillie “a 6-10 jumping, shooting, skilled guy.”
Tillie's parents were both professional volleyball players and his brother, Kevin, played volleyball at UC-Irvine. As for Kim, he has forged a successful career in the EuroLeague, where he still plays at age 30.
However, like his older brother, who suffered a variety of injuries during his time at Utah, Killian has also been plagued by injuries. A stress fracture in his right ankle kept him out the first two months of this season and a partially torn plantar fascia kept him out of seven late-season games before he returned for the West Coast Conference tournament.
That made for a discombobulated junior season, following up on a stellar sophomore season when he started 35 of Gonzaga’s 36 games, averaged 12.9 points on 58 percent shooting and was named all-WCC and most outstanding player of the WCC Tournament.
“We’ve kind of had similar injuries,” said Tillie, not wanting to jinx himself by saying the Tillies are injury-prone. “But I’m almost back to normal.”
Tillie’s coming-out party may have been two years at Vivint Arena during the NCAA Tournament second-round game against Northwestern.
He had never started a game during his freshman season at Gonzaga and had scored in double figures just three times. Yet with Northwestern making a late rally, having cut a 22-point lead to seven, coach Mark Few inserted Tillie into the game in the final minutes.
Tillie immediately made a difference, coming up with a dunk off a turnover and a key rebound as the Bulldogs hung on for a 79-73 victory.
His numbers weren’t great — eight points, five rebounds and a block and a steal, but as teammate Zach Collins said afterward, “We don’t win that game without Tillie.”
Tillie scored only a handful of points in the next three NCAA games, but in the national championship game against North Carolina he grabbed nine rebounds in the close loss.
And assistant coach Donny Daniels recalls how cool Tillie was in those NCAA games. In the semifinal win over South Carolina, Few inserted Tillie into the game in the final seconds for rebounding purposes. He got the rebound on an intentional missed free throw by the Gamecocks and was fouled. Tillie sank both free throws to seal the win.3 comments on this story
“He comes in with 2 seconds to go and they foul him right away and he makes two free throws, boom, boom,” said Daniels. “That tells you a lot about a person. It’s just been bad luck with his injuries.”
With a front line that includes all-Americans Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke, Tillie isn’t seeing the minutes he used to, but he’s a valuable player off the bench for the Zags as they try to make the Final Four for the second time in three years.
“For sure, we have the team for that,” Tillie said. “If we play that way with confidence we can go all the way.”