SPOKANE — Gonzaga has just four returning scholarship players, but don’t expect to see the 2018-19 versions of Killian Tillie, Corey Kispert, Filip Petrusev and Joel Ayayi this season.
All four are slated for bigger roles on the court and in the locker room. If all goes according to plan, the veterans, along with graduate transfer guards Admon Gilder and Ryan Woolridge, will form the backbone guiding one of the youngest teams in program history.
Their challenge is similar to those faced by past teams, but expectations have climbed higher in recent years. Gonzaga is trying to extend a 21-year streak of NCAA tournament appearances. The Zags are the only program in the nation to reach at least the Sweet 16 the past five seasons.
That’s a healthy amount of pressure on the foursome as it assumes additional responsibilities.
Health concerns have unfortunately been a recurring theme for Tillie, who has battled numerous injuries over the past three seasons, including foot and ankle issues that limited him to 15 games last season. He never found his footing coming off the bench as Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke put together memorable seasons.
Tillie probably wouldn’t be back for his senior year if it hadn’t been for a sprained ankle in his first NBA workout last spring.
His senior year is off to a bumpy start with knee surgery on Oct. 3, but there is optimism that this ‘clean-up’ procedure bodes well for a healthier future and won’t keep him out of any regular-season games.
The talented 6-foot-10 forward has proven he’s a unique talent with his three-point accuracy, passing and nose for the ball.
“Depth and health go hand in hand,” Kispert said of the foremost key for the team. “I think the main thing to put us over the top would probably be Killian’s health. He’s just so lethal for us, you saw that two years ago. He’s so unbelievably talented and makes a big difference for us and the way we run our offense.”
Said Tillie: “Obviously, health is one key, but I’m kind of tired of talking about that. Maybe communication, trying to have more leadership at practice first and transferring it to games.”
Those duties are on the to-do list for all four returnees, but more so for the most seasoned players in Tillie and Kispert, and to some degree Gilder and Woolridge. The four have played in 343 career games, with Gilder’s 98 for Texas A&M and Woolridge’s 89 for North Texas.
Kispert and Petrusev might see the biggest adjustments in their roles. Kispert was reliable last season, but considered more of a secondary scorer on a team with plentiful options. His job description has changed and he’s off to a promising start after dropping 28 points on Michigan State in a closed scrimmage Oct. 19.
“Everything from shooting, putting up more shots, ball-handling more, being an emotional and vocal leader all falls on my shoulders for year three,” the junior wing said. “I learned from a lot of really good players the last few years, and I think I have what it takes to take on a new role with everything that comes with it.”
Petrusev was an effective scorer last year coming off the bench, but had lapses on the defensive end. The 6-11 Serbian native should move into the starting unit and have ample opportunities with extended playing time. Last season he was the third big in the rotation and dropped to fourth when Tillie was available.
Petrusev does his best work in the paint, but has the ability to stretch the floor (9 of 30 on three-pointers last season). It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him double his scoring (6.5) and rebounding (2.7) averages from last season.
“He’s going to be our main big guy, a huge piece for our offense,” Tillie said. “He scores quickly, finds ways to get rebounds, duck-ins, post-ups, hit a three.”
Ayayi redshirted as a freshman and barely saw court time last season, but the 6-5 guard has continued to mature and develop his game after enrolling at Gonzaga at age 17.
He starred on France’s U18 and U19 teams the past two summers, showing an improved three-point shot and the ability to penetrate and finish. Ayayi looks to be the first guard off the bench and see a significant increase in playing time.
“I think he had 10 points against Michigan State,” assistant coach Tommy Lloyd said. “He’s been really consistent and he was really good in practice last year. He’s had a good fall. We were all surprised by how far he had to go when he first got here, but he’s done the work and he never complained about not playing.”
An opportunity to step into the spotlight awaits Ayayi, Tillie, Kispert and Petrusev.
“For sure,” Tillie said, “everybody is going to get a bigger role.”