By Mike Schmeltzer
For Gonzaga News Service
SPOKANE, Wash. – A year ago, Killian Tillie was back home in Cagnes-sur-Mer, France, weighing multiple opportunities from American colleges offering basketball scholarships.
Ultimately, two things drove the 6-foot-10-inch forward’s decision to attend Gonzaga University.
“Gonzaga’s coaches have had a lot of success developing international players, especially bigs like me,” Tillie said. “Plus, Gonzaga wins – and that’s always fun.”
This marks the 19th consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament for Gonzaga, 34-1 after beating South Dakota State and Northwestern. Only three schools have longer active NCAA Tournament streaks than GU, ranked No. 2 in both major U.S. college basketball polls. Along the way, Gonzaga has never won fewer than 20 games in a season. The Zags will play in their eighth Sweet Sixteen game on Thursday when they take on West Virginia with the opportunity to advance to their third Elite Eight.
International athletes such as Tillie have played an outsized role in GU’s rise as a college basketball power. This year’s Gonzaga team has players from six countries – Canada, Denmark, France, Japan, Poland and, course, the United States – reflecting the ambitious global mission and reach of the university the team represents. Read story on Gonzaga Most Notable International Players from Past.
Several international big men have gone on to NBA careers after honing their hardwood skills at Gonzaga. Domantas Sabonis, a 6-foot-10 Lithuanian, helped lead last year’s GU team to a 28-8 record; this year he’s a starter for the Oklahoma City Thunder. Canadian Kelly Olynyk, a 7-foot center now with the Boston Celtics, was an All-American at Gonzaga in 2013. Robert Sacre, another 7-foot Canadian, played for the Los Angeles Lakers after starring at Gonzaga. Six-foot-9 Ronny Turiaf, who arrived at GU from Martinique via France, spent 10 years in the NBA after graduating from Gonzaga.
More than any of them, Turiaf may have influenced Tillie’s decision to attend GU.
“I knew about Ronny Turiaf because he’s from France,” Tillie said.
Read related story on Gonzaga center Przemek Karnowski from Poland
For Tillie, the international experience at GU includes not just his teammates – he shares an apartment with Jacob Larsen from Denmark and Rui Hachimura from Japan – but also the Gonzaga students and faculty members he encounters daily in the classroom and around campus.
“It’s different from France,” he said, “but the people have been very friendly. I feel like I am learning and making friends. You feel welcome and accepted, not just as part of the team but also by the other students.”
Along with basketball, Gonzaga’s international players get coaching on adjusting to the rigors of college-level course work and life in a small American city, as well as language help when needed.
Tillie’s language skills are good, but classes taught only in English can still be something of a challenge. “I took philosophy in the fall and it was sometimes hard to find the words I wanted when we were having a discussion,” he said. “I think the longer I’m here, speaking English all day with everyone, the easier it will get.”
It was basketball that brought Tillie to Gonzaga and the game remains a primary focus. He emerged during his freshman season as a significant contributor to the team’s success, in spite of injuries that caused him to miss several games.
As part of Gonzaga’s primary eight-man rotation, Tillie has averaged an ultra-efficient 4.9 points and 3.4 rebounds playing 13 minutes per game. The big man runs the court and handles the ball well and has shown an exceptional shooting touch, hitting 52.5 percent of his field goal attempts overall and 47.8 percent from three-point range.
Beyond that is his energetic knack for timely rebounding, blocked shots and scoring bursts. In a bruising mid-season road game at Loyola Marymount, Tillie came off the bench for 11 points in just eight first-half minutes, hitting all three field goal attempts and all four free throws, leading a GU surge that opened up a 50-28 halftime edge.
“Killian brings energy, hustle, athleticism and a great feel for the game,” Gonzaga Coach Mark Few said. “We’re fortunate to have him and the depth he provides.”
Athletics Run in Tillie Family
Tommy Lloyd, head assistant to GU Coach Mark Few and the program’s chief international recruiter, points to Tillie’s deep athletic background as a factor. His mother, Caroline, is the former captain of the Netherlands national women’s volleyball team. His father, Laurent, starred for more than a decade on the French national men’s volleyball team, played in both the 1988 and 1992 Olympics, and is today coach of France’s national men’s team. Eldest brother Kim played basketball at the University of Utah and now plays professionally in Europe. Middle brother Kevin won back-to-back NCAA men’s volleyball titles with the University of California-Irvine before returning to France to play for his father on the national team.
“Killian grew up playing a lot of volleyball and those skills – the jumping and especially the timing – really translate to basketball,” Lloyd said. “You see it in his rebounding, blocks and put-backs.”
After winning MVP honors and leading France to the title in the 2013 FIBA U16 Division A European Basketball Championships and then helping France to a bronze medal finish two years later in the FIBA 3-on-3 U18 World Championships, Tillie had multiple scholarship offers from American schools. Utah and Georgia Tech both got serious consideration before he decided on Gonzaga.
“When I came to visit, I just liked everything: The coaches, the players, the style of play,” Tillie said. “I liked that basketball is huge at Gonzaga – on campus and in the community. I knew this was the place for me.”