After two seasons as a starter for the Washington basketball team, Nigel Williams-Goss transferred to Gonzaga. He will face his former teammates Wednesday when the two teams renew their rivalry after a 10-year break.
Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from “Glory Hounds,” written by former longtime Seattle Times college-basketball writer Bud Withers. The book tells the stories behind the staying power of the Gonzaga men’s basketball program. Washington and Gonzaga are resuming their men’s basketball rivalry after a 10-year break, and one of the Zags’ top players is guard Nigel Williams-Goss, who transferred from UW after two seasons.
Washington’s 2014-15 team would likely intrigue sociologists. It blew to an 11-0 start, undefeated all the way past Christmas. Then it lost at home to Stony Brook, the first of four straight defeats. Late in January, coach Lorenzo Romar booted star center Robert Upshaw for rules violations — amid reports of failed drug tests there and at his previous school, Fresno State — and the Huskies plummeted to a 16-15 ending, 11th in the conference at 5-13.
Nigel Williams-Goss led the team in scoring at 15.6, while his shooting slipped to .442 and only .256 from the arc. He was second in the league in assists at 5.9 a game and third in assist-turnover ratio at 2.08. His superlative game came Feb. 1 against Cal, as he hit 11 of 17 shots on a 31-point afternoon, with six rebounds, five assists and no turnovers.
By the numbers
How Nigel Williams-Goss is doing in his first season with the Zags:
Points per game
Three-point shooting percentage
Minutes per game
Assists per game
Note: Stats entering Saturday’s game
When, on senior day at the UW, he had 28 points in 39 minutes to lead an upset of 13th-ranked Utah, no Husky fan, not even Romar, could have guessed what was coming next.
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The team was fragmenting. Darin Johnson and Jernard Jarreau were outbound, and deep-reserve center Gilles Dierickx was dropping down to Seattle Pacific. A couple of seniors were done, and there was some continuing buzz that Williams-Goss might enter the NBA draft; he had contemplated it after his freshman year.
Williams-Goss points out that another element of the turmoil was assistant coach T.J. Otzelberger, who was leaving to return to Iowa State. Says Williams-Goss, “It was just a lot of change in the program. I was kind of at that halfway point. I kind of said, do I want to rebuild midway through my career or go elsewhere?”
It wouldn’t have floored Romar to know that Williams-Goss was going to explore the NBA. Transferring was something else entirely. Williams-Goss recalls him saying, “You know, it’s one thing to think you were going to leave to try to enter the draft. It’s another thing knowing you’re going to play for someone else.”
Indeed, Williams-Goss was, and he obtained his release from Washington. He upped the ante considerably three weeks later when he announced his destination: Gonzaga, the school across the state, the place that had been a burr in the Huskies’ backside competitively as well as in the public discourse after Washington curtailed the series in 2007.
“I mean, it was tough,” Williams-Goss says. “One, telling coach Romar I was leaving the program in general was hard. And again, when I said I was going to Gonzaga. I didn’t look too much into the rivalry or anything like that. I was making a decision into where I thought was best. It just so happened it was Gonzaga. At the end of the day, coach Romar has his career and his family he has to take care of, and my career is still young and I’m still developing mine.”
Williams-Goss made it clear to me he didn’t want to make his transfer from Washington to Gonzaga a noisy, contentious episode. Still, it was apparent that his departure was about more than just the attrition around him.
“I felt after my freshman year, a lot of the things we had talked about (that) were going to change going into my sophomore year, I didn’t see a lot of that change happening,” he says. “It’s one thing, I feel like, to lose, but it’s another thing when you’re not doing everything in your power, or your capability, as far as preparation in trying to win. I just felt there were a lot of stones left unturned before games, and stuff like that. I had talked to past players, where they kind of had similar experiences … I just felt it was best for me to move on.”
Was he saying that people weren’t working hard enough? “I’m not saying guys didn’t work hard,” Williams-Goss says. “I just felt there are a lot of things that go into preparing and stuff at this level — the margin is so small at this level — and I just felt there were just a lot of things that weren’t being done that could have been done. That (they) said were going to be done that weren’t.”
Naturally, he became one of the premier transfers on the market after the 2014-15 season. He spent a weekend sifting through feelers and phone calls – UNLV, Providence, Ohio State, Michigan State, Texas, Notre Dame, Georgetown, LSU, St. John’s, Vanderbilt, Gonzaga.
“A big list,” Williams-Goss says. “I remember being on the phone with like Tom Izzo, and Thad Matta would be calling, and John Thompson from Georgetown. It was kind of overwhelming.”
What wasn’t overwhelming, initially, was Gonzaga. Zags assistant Brian Michaelson was close to one of Williams-Goss’ former AAU coaches, and Michaelson called during that hectic weekend. But Williams-Goss hadn’t heard from Gonzaga coach Mark Few, while he was taking calls from head coaches around the country.
But Few got to Williams-Goss on Monday, and they set up a home visit. Accompanied by Michaelson, he made an impression.
“They completely elevated in my mind,” says Williams-Goss. “Again, it was going back to the preparation, the workouts . . . like the amount of film they watch, just the preparation that goes into being successful. Again, like some of the issues I had leaving the UW, they were kind of on top of everything I was kind of looking for. Their whole thing was about developing and winning, those two things exclusively. It wasn’t about the facilities or the location or the conference. It was strictly making me the best player I could possibly be, and having a chance to win at the highest level.”
As Few puts it, “Literally, there isn’t a stone that goes unturned here.”
Going way back, even as far back as middle school, Williams-Goss had a saying: “I just want the platform.” He just wanted the surroundings, the ingredients, to help facilitate his own initiative and ability.
It helped, no doubt, that Gonzaga was coming off an Elite Eight appearance, and could point to 17 successive years in the NCAA tournament. That’s a platform. It had appeal, especially in contrast to Washington’s growing tournament drought. After an extended run of success under Romar, the Huskies had failed to make the tournament four straight years, a number that grew to five in 2015-16.
Williams-Goss visited Gonzaga with his parents, did the campus tour and had a meeting with Few in his office. On the last night of his visit, he and Gonzaga players were gathered at Few’s rustic home southwest of Spokane, and the Zags were glued to the television showing the long-awaited Manny Pacquiao-Floyd Mayweather fight.
Williams-Goss slipped away to the kitchen, where it was just him and Few. There, he told the coach he wanted to transfer to Gonzaga.