GLENDALE, Ariz. — There aren’t many players with a sunnier disposition than Gonzaga’s Nigel Williams-Goss.
“Nigel is the happiest, most positive dude I’ve ever coached,” coach Mark Few said of the redshirt junior guard in his first season with the team, noting that he hails from a town called Happy Valley, Oregon. “I kind of want to go back there and get another guy just to get another happy guy on my team.”
But even with his cheery temperament, there is one thing that Williams-Goss will not abide.
Try to tell him that his team is overrated because it has not played a challenging schedule — not even in the NCAA Tournament up until Monday night’s 71-65 loss to North Carolina in the national championship game — and the gleam in his eyes turns to fire.
“I’m not going to lie, that question really bothers me,” he said of the doubts stemming from the Bulldogs not facing any team seeded higher than fourth in the tournament (West Virginia in the West Regional semifinal) and beating South Carolina, a seven seed from the East Regional, in the national semifinal. “We played who we played because they won games.”
It’s only natural that the strength of Gonzaga’s schedule and its 37-2 record would be scrutinized. The Zags may no longer be a mid-major program, but they do play in a decidedly non-major conference, the WCC. St. Mary’s, Pepperdine and Pacific hardly stack up to the gantlet that North Carolina faces in the ACC. Add to that the perception of the soft road to the championship game, and of course there will be apples-to-oranges questions regarding how Gonzaga stacks up.
Williams-Goss defended that path to Monday night’s game, even nailing the score differentials in those games, which probably shows how much thought he gave to preparing the validation. “You look at the teams that South Carolina beat, they beat Duke and they beat Baylor by 20,” he said. “Xavier [Gonzaga’s 11th-seeded opponent in the West Regional final] beat Maryland, they beat the three-seed Florida State by 25, they beat Arizona. We can only play who wins those games.”
Williams-Goss actually may be one of the best resources when it comes to judging how Gonzaga would rate in a major conference. He played two seasons for Washington in the Pac-12 before transferring to the smaller Spokane school. His main reason for the jump? He wanted to win.
He was so sure of it that during his redshirt season between teams last season, he typed up a list of goals and saved it as the home screen on his phone. Every text, every call, every photo, every search for directions he made was a reminder. It remained there, too, as he and Gonzaga played through this season.
Then, about two weeks ago, Williams-Goss lost his phone — and with it, the list. He said he didn’t bother to recreate it for his new device. “At this point, we only have one game left,” he said. “And there’s just one last thing to check off.”
That, of course, would be winning a national title.
Plus, he had the rest of the list memorized.
“I wanted to win the WCC [regular-season] championship, I wanted to win the WCC Tournament championship, I wanted to win the WCC player of the year,” he said. “I wanted to be a first-team academic All-America and I wanted to be a basketball All-America.
“And then I wanted to win a national championship. I prayed for it every night and I worked for it every day.”
On Monday night, he had a chance to check off that final item on his to-do list. It was something he was looking forward to doing, not only for himself but for those who discounted Gonzaga’s success this season.
“The perception has been the same all year long, that Gonzaga was good but in a weak conference,” he said. “Wasn’t battle-tested, couldn’t get over the hump . . . I’m so glad we have been able to get to this point to hush out the naysayers. We’ve earned that respect.”
All that remained Monday night was to earn the actual title. But it didn’t happen.