Off to a flying start ... with one big exception

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STEVE CAMERON/Press A look at the new paint job of the floor at The Kennel — including the NCAA’s new 3-point line.

The night of celebration was marred only by some familiar scary news.

Gonzaga’s annual Kraziness in Kennel went off in style Saturday night, punctuated by roars, cheers, chants and all the rest from an excited crowd of 6,000.

The revved-up fans saw all six freshman and two grad transfers for the first time, and given the Zags’ higher-profile recruiting these days, there was a heck of a lot to like.

In addition to the current Zags being on display, the audience howled repeated welcomes to four big-time recruits — previous commits Dominick Harris and Julian Strawther, along with uncommitted target Jalen Suggs and Suggs’ 7-foot-1 high school teammate, recruit Chet Holmgren from the class of 2021.

There was plenty to take in, obviously, but …

What the crowd did NOT see was Killian Tillie.

The oft-injured senior — potentially one of the best players in the nation — had knee surgery last Thursday.

Yes, really.

Before any Zags fanatics put their heads in the oven, though, it should be pointed out that Coach Mark Few called the procedure “just something proactive, for us and for him down the road.”

At another point, Few referred to the surgery as “cleaning out some things.”

No timetable was offered for the 6-10 Frenchman’s return, although the vibe surrounding this spooky announcement suggested that Tillie might be back close to the regular-season opener against Alabama State on Nov. 5.

The Zags don’t have what you could call a truly testing game until a road affair at Texas A&M on Nov. 15.

STILL, this is Tillie we’re talking about, so there’s always cause to be a little alarmed.

Two different injuries limited Tillie to just 15 games last year, and it always seemed like he was working himself into top game shape when something else would set the whole process back.

Zag Nation has had plenty of dreams about whether or not last year’s team — the gang that featured current NBA players Rui Hachimura, Brandon Clarke, Josh Perkins and Zach Norvell Jr. — might have won the school’s first national championship if Tillie had been firing on all cylinders by the time of the NCAA tournament.

Tillie himself was aiming to be a pro this year, by the way, and a lot of scouts loved him — a mobile big man whose career 3-point shooting is north of 40 percent.

The chief worry was whether he could manage to stay healthy, and Tillie wound up back in Spokane after he injured an ankle at his first NBA audition in Atlanta.

So now …

Well, Few didn’t seem discouraged, and the boss sounded like he was trying to sell optimism about last week’s knee surgery.

It’s surgery, though — you know, cutting body parts — so if you’re a pessimist, remember that Few is routinely upbeat on most topics and that Tillie has suffered from everything but the Black Plague during his stay at Gonzaga.

Fingers crossed, then.

ANOTHER minor issue that came to light on Saturday was the status of freshman center Oumar Ballo.

The 6-11 bruiser from Mali is not yet eligible, as Gonzaga waits for the NCAA to clear his transcripts — a notoriously slow process, especially with international players.

Ballo and current Zags guard Joel Ayayi of France were two of the biggest stars at this summer’s U-19 FIBA World Cup (as was Strawther for Puerto Rico).

Ballo is enrolled and can practice with the team. He was also present at Kraziness, and displayed the most imposing physique in a group of pretty sturdy young men, barely nudging Filip Petrusev because Ballo is only 17 years old.

On the good news front — besides the fact that the Zags clearly have lots of talent with more on the way — grad transfers Ryan Woolridge (kneecap surgery) and Admon Gilder (blood clot) pronounced themselves almost fully fit after missing last season at North Texas State and Texas A&M, respectively.

Both transfers have been medically cleared for all activities, and each looked pretty sharp in a scrappy 16-minute scrimmage that made it obvious that all these newcomers and the scattering of returning players had been practicing together for only about a week.

The individual talent level was awfully encouraging, though.

GILDER hit all three of his 3-point shots — freshman Brock Ravet won a separate 3-point shooting contest by hitting 10 of 12 in the final — and Ayayi made another three shots from deep in what could have loosely been called a game.

Several players changed sides, so scores were irrelevant.

Veterans Corey Kispert, Petrusev and Ayayi clearly were most comfortable as the new guys all worked at fitting in.

Nevertheless, frosh hopefuls Anton Watson (Gonzaga Prep) and Drew Timme, the big kid from Texas, appeared ready for college basketball at the highest level — and that’s what they’ll get as the Zags play a brutal non-conference schedule that includes road games at Washington and Arizona (both of whom should be ranked) and a visit to the Kennel by North Carolina.

Few’s challenge is to get all these guys playing well together — and of course, to light plenty of candles that Tillie will be fit and firing by mid-November at the latest.

CANDLES and more candles on that one.

But the talent …

Returnees Petrusev and Ayayi may be ready for breakout years. Petrusev is a beast who still managed to win a unique event, the “Skills Challenge,” during Saturday’s festivities.

Ayayi and Ravet showed off incredible shooting range to wow the crowd — and they’ll need it since the NCAA has approved a new 3-point line set at 22 feet, 1 3/4 inches.

Don’t ask how they came up with THAT particular measurement — it’s the NCAA, after all.

The new 3-point lines were part of an overall repainting of the court at the Kennel, so the venue itself also looked sharp for the unofficial opening of basketball season.

WHILE waiting on Tillie’s recuperation (please, even more candles), Zags loyalists on hand Saturday night had every reason to be encouraged about what they saw of this reloading process.

There will be a lot of new faces and thrilling performances to ponder, and even though Gonzaga lost its top four scorers from last year’s Elite Eight team, it’s fairly clear that the Zags will remain among the nation’s premier programs.

The Kraziness at the Kennel crowd will be all for that — considering it was open seating and a line already was forming around 2 p.m.

The question for everyone: Now far can this almost entirely new batch of Zags go?

That’s always part of the excitement, so …

Get well, Killian.

• • •

Email: scameron @cdapress.com

Steve Cameron’s “Cheap Seats” columns for The Press appear on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Steve also contributes the “Zags Tracker” package on Gonzaga basketball once monthly during the off season.

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