THE BIGGEST REASON THAT GONZAGA CAN REACH THE FINAL FOUR? IT'S PART OF NIGEL WILLIAMS-GOSS'S MASTER PLAN
NIGEL WILLIAMS-GOSS wanted a plan. Not the vague "we'll make you better" promises that were part of the coaches' pitches to get him to transfer to their school, but a detailed road map for how he'd improve his game, pile up wins and reach the Final Four. "I'm an A + B = C person," says the junior point guard, who after the 2015 season had been granted his release from Washington and was deciding where he should land next.
Gonzaga coach Mark Few had a plan for Williams-Goss that spring. But Williams-Goss wasn't interested in hearing it at first, telling Few he'd developed better relationships with other coaches. Few pushed back. "You went through that process the first time, wanting the coach to be your best friend," he said. "I ain't gonna be your best friend. I'm gonna coach you up, we're gonna have a healthy dose of respect for each other, and we're gonna develop you."
Few and assistant Brian Michelson then met with Williams-Goss at his home in Las Vegas and presented an exhaustive breakdown of everything the Zags would do for him, from what his redshirt year would focus on to how their conditioning program would change his body to how he'd assimilate academically with his double major in psychology and communications. The coaches also shared their scouting reports on other teams, pages of offensive and defensive tendencies and how to attack them. A basketball junkie known for taking detailed notes while watching film, Williams-Goss was downright giddy. "Kid on Christmas morning doesn't describe it," says his father, Virgil. Recalls Nigel, "There was no doubt. It was like, This is it, this is the spot for me."
And this season he has filled a huge void for Gonzaga, which had lost most of its key backcourt players. Not only did Williams-Goss average a team-high 16.3 points for the No. 4 Zags (32–1), the top seed in the West region, but he also shot 52.1% from the field, 37.2% from deep and 91.0% from the foul line in being named West Coast Conference player of the year. He excels in Gonzaga's ball-screen-heavy offense, where his calculating, analytical mind helps him attack the rim or dish to teammates (153 assists to 68 turnovers this season). He's also the Zags' best rebounding guard (5.7 per game) and typically defends opposing teams' best perimeter player.
"[Williams-Goss] was always a capable shooter, but now he's much better," says Arizona coach Sean Miller, who faced Williams-Goss twice when he was with Washington. "You add that element to the cast he plays with, and it's the perfect storm: They have a lot of talented, experienced players and, no question, he is the engine that can make it go."
THE STANDOUT from Findlay Prep in Henderson, Nev., had big plans when he arrived in Seattle: Help the Huskies end their two-year NCAA tournament drought and turn pro after his sophomore season.
In what Washington coach Lorenzo Romar has termed a "dysfunctional" stretch for the program, however, nine players and four coaches left over a three-year period, culminating in a 16–15 finish when Williams-Goss was a sophomore, in 2014–15. A + B equaled mediocrity, and Williams-Goss, who was second-team all-conference as a sophomore, felt he needed to make a change. "Obviously playing for a Pac-12 program, having a big football team and a lot of great facilities, that's fun," he says. "But our facilities didn't put a smile on my face when we weren't winning games."
No program in the country has used the mid-career redshirt with as much success as Gonzaga. Former All-Americas Kelly Olynyk and Kyle Wiltjer dramatically changed their bodies and saw significant growth in their games after their seasons off. During his redshirt year in Spokane, the 6'3" Williams-Goss did not drastically trim his body fat—it's always hovered around 4%—but he added about 10 pounds of muscle, a difference he feels every time he drives to the rim.
Over the years he has sometimes overanalyzed the information available to him, but the beauty of the Zags, he says, is that coaches have done all the prep for him and present it to the players in a clear and simple way. "The prep we do takes a load off you," he says. "So many times I knew the other team was going to go under a ball screen, so I knew I was shooting a three before I even let it go."
Williams-Goss studies other teams, but with a purpose. After the Zags entered the season No. 14, he watched only the 13 higher-ranked teams to understand what it would take to be No. 1. His list quickly got shorter: After a school-record 22–0 start, Gonzaga, during the final week of January, reached the top spot for the first time since March 2013.
IT'S NO SURPRISE that Williams-Goss is a planner, given his parents' goal-setting throughout his life. Nigel was a baby when his mother, Valerie, was finishing her masters in psychology at George Fox University in the mid-1990s. She'd take him to her night classes and volunteer shifts at a women's crisis center. Often she would drive to the bus stop to hand Nigel off to Virgil, a mortgage broker, who would ride home with a baby in one hand and a pizza for dinner in the other. On the weekends the family, then living in a lower-income section of northeast Portland, drove around the affluent suburb of Happy Valley while coming up with a way to buy in that area so Nigel could attend some of the best schools in the state. Virgil, a retired Air Force staff sergeant who played semipro in England for two years, coached his son's youth basketball teams, and before every game he encouraged the players to write their goals on index cards, which they read aloud before tip-off.
Figuring that grinding daily against top competition would make the transition to college easier, Nigel decided as an eighth-grader that he wanted to play at powerhouse Findlay Prep. Valerie agreed that the family would relocate only if Findlay was academically rigorous enough for Nigel, who had been a straight-A student at his Oregon middle school while learning Mandarin. In moving, he left his maternal grandmother, Barbara Hingston—"my favorite person in the world," Nigel says—though she came to visit for long stretches during Findlay's season. Two years ago, when she was diagnosed with Stage IV lung cancer and told she had just six months to live, Nigel told her their plan was all positivity, all the time. The 78-year-old Hingston takes Nigel's words to heart as she takes the 40 pills a day. "She's hanging on," Valerie says, "to watch him play."
Williams-Goss's upbringing helps explain why he doesn't join the Zags' Netflix binges—Vampire Diaries is a current favorite—because getting ahead with his homework has always been a priority. He was the Huskies' first academic All-America, an honor he repeated at Gonzaga this season while graduating with a 3.84 GPA and BA in psychology. He's started on a master's in organizational leadership.
THE NBA WILL come soon enough for Williams-Goss and with that, a platform to show youngsters that you don't necessarily have to fit into a box. That it's possible to be the closet nerd who loves discussing Harry Potter with your grandma and also a gym rat with a smooth jump shot. "I think a lot of people buy into stereotypes and believe certain things aren't for them," he says. "I want to go into public speaking someday because I know that a lot of times, people don't succeed because they've never seen someone who looks like them tell them they can do it."
With one season of eligibility remaining, Williams-Goss hasn't decided if he'll go pro early. That decision will be at least partially based on what the Zags do this postseason. They have reached the Elite Eight twice since 1999—but never the Final Four. During his redshirt year, Williams-Goss typed some goals on his phone, then took a picture and made that list his screen saver. Every day he read them: WCC championship. WCC player of the year. Final Four. NCAA championship.
This season in Spokane has given him the A + B that he so deeply craved. Now he needs to complete the equation.
Here are five more transfers eager to make deep runs into March after helping to lift their teams to the tournament
PF SEMI OJELEYE, 6'7" junior, SMU (from Duke)
His full name is Jesusemilore, and he's gone from a Blue Devils benchwarmer to the Mustangs' leading scorer (18.9 ppg).
PG MANU LECOMTE, 5'11" junior, Baylor (from Miami)
A native of Brussels, Lecomte wanted to run a team. With 12.4 ppg and 3.9 apg, he has guided the Bears to a No. 3 seed.
SG MARCUS FOSTER, 6'3" junior, Creighton (from Kansas State)
A hotshot recruit who lost his motivation at K-State, Foster rebounded to average 18.3 points on 51.3% shooting.
SF KYLE WASHINGTON, 6'9" junior, Cincinnati (from N.C. State)
His playing time dwindling with the Wolfpack, Washington left for a more reliable frontcourt role (13.1 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 1.2 bpg).
SG CANYON BARRY, 6'6" senior, Florida (College of Charleston)
After blossoming as the Cougars' leading scorer last year, Barry, a grad-student transfer, is second on the Gators, with 12.1 ppg.