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One unlikely secret to Gonzaga's success: A recruiting pitch 'nobody really wants'

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When Nigel Williams-Goss began whittling down his list of potential transfer destinations two years ago, the school that he would one day lead to the Final Four didn’t even make the first cut.

The heralded point guard initially declined to visit Gonzaga, scheduling trips to UNLV, Providence, Ohio State and Georgetown instead. Only after after a text conversation between Williams-Goss’ father and Gonzaga assistant Brian Michaelson did the family reconsider.

“I told Brian we weren’t going to come because we were getting burnt out,” Virgil Williams-Goss said. “He was like, ‘Virgil, I think you should invest the weekend before you make that final decision. I think this is the best place for your son.'”

Taking the time to visit Gonzaga opened the eyes of the younger Williams-Goss to a program that offered the structure and winning track record his previous school lacked. Michaelson, head coach Mark Few and strength and conditioning coach Travis Knight offered a detailed plan for how they would improve his game during his redshirt year, surround him with talent the following season and build a team capable of making a Final Four push.

Having watched film of Williams-Goss from his first two seasons at Washington, the Gonzaga staff highlighted flaws in his game they wanted to fix during his redshirt year, from strengthening his core so he could better absorb contact on the way to the rim, to tweaking his shot to make it more consistent. Few also assuaged any concerns Williams-Goss had about playing with incumbent point guard Josh Perkins by showing clips of how two lead guards have thrived alongside each other at Gonzaga in the past.

What really bolstered Gonzaga’s pitch was that Few could cite two recent shining examples of his program’s success developing a player during a redshirt year.

The year after redshirting the 2011-12 season, Kelly Olynyk evolved from overlooked backup to a first-team All-American and NBA lottery pick. That helped Gonzaga the following year land Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer, who morphed from a one-dimensional shooter into an elite scorer capable of exploiting mismatches on the perimeter or in the paint.

“That was a huge factor,” Williams-Goss said. “Their redshirt plan for me was second to none compared to all the other schools I was looking at. I feel like they had a very deliberate plan from day one as far as what I was going to work on during my redshirt year. The success they had with Kelly and Kyle was a huge part of why I came.”

Gonzaga: 3.84 GPA in Psychology
Nigel Williams-Goss (AP)

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Only a couple weeks after Williams-Goss announced his intent to transfer to Gonzaga, another key member of the Zags’ Final Four team pondered doing the same.

Forward Johnathan Williams III led 23-loss Missouri in points, rebounds and field goal attempts two seasons ago as a sophomore, but he didn’t believe he was improving quickly enough, nor did he feel comfortable with the direction of the program. The talent-starved Tigers would go on to finish last in the SEC two more times before finally firing coach Kim Anderson last month.

“I gave up a lot of things leaving Mizzou as far as touches and how many shots I was getting, but it’s bigger than that,” Williams said. “You want to look for a program that’s always winning and known for winning. I knew I had to make a lot of sacrifices when I decided to transfer but I just took a leap of faith.”

Whereas past transfers that Gonzaga landed typically had ties to the Pacific Northwest, Williams grew up more than 2,000 miles southeast of Spokane. But the Memphis native had no choice but to cast a wider net than he might have otherwise after Missouri inexplicably initially refused to release him to every SEC and Big 12 school.

What also helped Gonzaga was that Williams was familiar with the Zags because of their frequent non-conference games against Memphis. Only two years earlier, the 6-foot-9 forward had watched Olynyk transform into college basketball’s most improved player and lead the Zags to their first-ever No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament.

“I was a big fan of that team,” Williams said. “I watched them play when I was in high school. I saw what he did and I saw what Kyle Wiltjer did and that sold me right away that you can get better here.”

When Williams visited Gonzaga, the staff presented him with a similarly detailed plan to make use of his redshirt year, one that included adding muscle, improving his ball-handling, developing his right hand and increasing his defensive mobility. Soon after that visit, Williams committed to the Zags, choosing them despite interest from SMU, Georgetown, Kansas and Michigan State.

Gonzaga’s Johnathan Williams celebrates a dunk (AP).
Gonzaga’s Johnathan Williams celebrates a dunk (AP).

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Figuring out how to turn the redshirt year into a recruiting tool is an unsung secret behind Gonzaga’s best season in program history. Only because of their impeccable history of player development did the Zags land two elite transfers who have become pillars of a 36-win Final Four season that will continue Saturday against South Carolina with a spot in the national title game at stake.

Williams-Goss, who averages 16.7 points and 4.6 assists, is unquestionably the Zags’ go-to scorer, dangerous either behind the arc or creating off the dribble. Williams, who has been maybe their best player in the NCAA tournament, is the team’s most versatile defender, now strong enough to hold his position in the post yet agile enough to switch onto a guard and keep him out of the lane.

Two other players are also sitting this season in hopes of making similar leaps next year when more playing time is available. Heralded freshman wing Zach Norvell chose to redshirt after offseason meniscus surgery delayed his start date and Danish big man Jacob Larsen has packed on 20 pounds of muscle despite a more serious offseason knee injury.

While player development has been a staple of the Gonzaga program since its run of 19 straight NCAA tournament bids began in 1999, the process has evolved considerably during the past two decades.

At the start of the run, the Zags were so cash-strapped they had no strength and conditioning coach, no nutritionist and a weight room that also served the general student population. The school has long since addressed those issues and invested lavishly in basketball, even breaking ground last year on a state-of-the-art $24 million practice facility expected to include a strength and conditioning area just for basketball.

The ultimate example of a player who made the most strides during his redshirt year is Olynyk, whose sudden rise began with some hard-to-swallow advice from his head coach.

Unable to displace frontcourt standouts Robert Sacre and Elias Harris in the starting lineup, Olynyk met with Few after the 2010-11 season to discuss his future in the program. Olynyk was ready to explore potential transfer destinations, but Few urged the Canadian 7-footer to examine all his alternatives.

One option was leaving a school he otherwise loved as a result of the frustration of playing less than 15 minutes a night. Another was staying put and trying to carve out a bigger role for himself off the bench the following season. But what Few recommended to Olynyk was showing patience, taking a redshirt year and improving his game so that he’d be in line to replace the graduating Sacre the following season.

“The coaches told me, ‘If you transfer, you’re going to have to take a redshirt year anyway so you might as well take that year here,'” Olynyk told Yahoo Sports in 2013. “Nobody wants to sit out. Everyone wants to play. So it was a tough decision. But when you look at it, I was playing behind two guys with NBA potential. There are only 80 minutes at the four and five spot. If they’re taking 65 of them, there’s no way I can play 30 minutes.”

Previously more comfortable hoisting jump shots from the perimeter than attacking in the paint, Olynyk spent his redshirt year working with Knight adding upper body strength, developing new post moves and improving his balance, footwork, agility and explosiveness. The same player who put up 5.8 points per game during the 2010-11 season averaged more than three times that many two years later, shining a light on Gonzaga’s methodology during a redshirt season.

“Kelly’s results are so dramatic that it really changed everyone’s expectations for what was possible in a redshirt year,” Knight said. “He set the bar higher. He showed it’s possible here to come out of a redshirt year and be an All-American.”

Kelly Olynyk led Gonzaga to a 32-3 record and a No. 1 seed in 2013. (AP)
Kelly Olynyk led Gonzaga to a 32-3 record and a No. 1 seed in 2013. (AP)

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Give Few and his staff credit for being smart about two things in the wake of Olynyk’s breakout season and subsequent departure for the NBA.

They knew Olynyk’s improvement during the year he sat out could be a recruiting tool for Gonzaga, yet they also recognized that few players would be willing to follow his model of a mid-career redshirt. The players they instead targeted were elite transfers who had to sit a year anyway under NCAA rules and wanted to join a winning program committed to helping them get better.

An influx of quality transfers is especially important to a program like Gonzaga that isn’t located in a fertile recruiting area and has to get creative to secure high-end talent. The Zags can land an occasional four- or five-star American-born recruit like Zach Collins or Josh Perkins, but they’ve long supplemented that with a steady stream of foreign imports and an occasional coveted transfer.

Wiltjer averaged 16.8 points as a junior and 20.4 as a senior, pairing with Domantas Sabonis to form one of the nation’s most feared frontcourt duos last season. Vanderbilt transfer Eric McClellan earned WCC defensive player of the year honors last season while also tallying an efficient 10.7 points per game.

“Nobody wants to redshirt because it’s very difficult,” Knight said. “It’s asking someone to suffer physically yet receive no credit for it for over a year. But that’s part of the brilliance of it. It’s kind of like a pilgrimage of sorts. You figure out who you are, what you want and how bad you want it.”

While that nucleus was leading Gonzaga to the Sweet 16 last season, Williams, Williams-Goss and fellow incoming transfer Jeremy Jones were already talking about going a couple rounds further. Their chatter about taking Gonzaga to its first Final Four became more frequent when Przemek Karnowski’s ailing back began to heal, sharpshooting Cal graduate transfer Jordan Mathews committed to the Zags and a deep, talented freshman class arrived on campus.

“We’d always go out to dinner while the rest of the team was away and be like, ‘We could actually come together and make it to the Final Four,'” Williams said. “We had all these good recruits coming in. We felt like we could reach our dreams.”

Those dreams are all coming true now.

Williams-Goss earned WCC player of the year and second-team All-American honors after showcasing a more consistent outside shot, a more cerebral approach to the point guard position and better all-around defense. Williams won the West Regional’s most outstanding player award last Saturday because of his efficient scoring around the rim and his defensive versatility. And both players will forever be part of Gonzaga lore as two key cogs in the school’s first Final Four team.

At the end of last Saturday’s rout of Xavier in the Elite Eight, Few embraced each player and thanked them for believing in him enough to come.

Williams-Goss and Williams took two of the bigger leaps of faith. Now both have gotten everything they could have wanted.

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Jeff Eisenberg is the editor of The Dagger on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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