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Gonzaga’s Bulldog Shelter

Mark Few has led the best team in the West to the national title game by embracing what other programs have decried: transfers like Nigel Williams-Goss, Jordan Mathews, and Johnathan Williams.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Gonzaga would not be playing in the national championship game on Monday without transfers. Three of the Bulldogs’ five starters didn’t sign with the program coming out of high school. The pitch Mark Few made to Nigel Williams-Goss (Washington), Jordan Mathews (Cal), and Johnathan Williams (Missouri) was simple: Come to Gonzaga and be part of a well-constructed team that will utilize your ability and allow you to play on a much bigger stage than you ever have before. All three were leaving schools with unsettled coaching situations, and none of their original schools still employ the coaches they played for.

For as talented as Williams-Goss, Mathews, and Williams are, they would probably not have changed the trajectory of the programs they left. Had they not transferred, their college careers would have ended with a whimper. Coming to Gonzaga was the best thing that ever happened to them, and their success is a strong argument for why player movement in the NCAA is a good thing.

Nigel Williams-Goss (Getty Images)
Nigel Williams-Goss (Getty Images)

Williams-Goss had the game of his life against South Carolina in the Final Four, with 23 points on 9-of-16 shooting, six assists, and five rebounds. At 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds with a 6-foot-6 wingspan, Williams-Goss has elite size for a point guard, and he was the West Coast Conference Player of the Year this season. Williams-Goss is responsible for controlling the tempo of the game, running the offense, and getting the ball into their big men. When he struggles, the Zags struggle. In their 61–58 escape against West Virginia in the Sweet 16, their closest call in the tournament so far, Williams-Goss had 10 points on 2-of-10 shooting and turned the ball over five times.

A five-star recruit and McDonald’s All American, Williams-Goss had two strong individual seasons for Washington before transferring, but he could not lift the program out of the slumber it had fallen into by the end of Lorenzo Romar’s tenure in Seattle. Washington missed the NCAA tournament in each of the past six seasons, despite having five first-round picks in that span, without even counting the likely no. 1 overall pick in 2017 (Markelle Fultz). Romar was fired after the Huskies finished with a 9–22 record this season, even though the top prospect in next year’s class, Michael Porter Jr., was committed to the program at the time of his ouster. Washington needed a change. Romar never reached the Elite Eight at the school despite having Brandon Roy and Isaiah Thomas for at least three seasons each, which looks much worse in retrospect than it did at the time.

Mathews slots next to Williams-Goss in a Gonzaga backcourt headlined by transfers, and at 6-foot-4 and 203 pounds, he gives the team a combination of size and athleticism on the perimeter it has never had before in Few’s tenure in Spokane. He has a much smaller role on offense than he had at Cal, but his ability to stretch the floor from 3 and shoot off the dribble gives Gonzaga a much-needed release valve in the half court. Gonzaga doesn’t beat West Virginia without Mathews knocking down the go-ahead 3 with less than a minute left, and his four 3s against South Carolina were crucial in putting the Gamecocks away on Saturday.

Mathews was a three-star recruit who, at Cal, proved he was better than his rankings, developing into one of the best scorers in the Pac-12, most notably scoring 28 points in a game at Arizona as a junior. Cal was loaded last season, with one future lottery pick (Jaylen Brown), another future first-round pick (Ivan Rabb) and a future second-round pick (Tyrone Wallace), as well as two elite shooters in Mathews and Jabari Bird, a former McDonald’s All American. Despite all the talent at his disposal, though, Cuonzo Martin lost in the first round of the tournament, and the Golden Bears were an NIT team this season even with Rabb and Bird returning. Rabb lost a ton of money by coming back to school for his sophomore season, while having a small role on a bad college team means Bird will have to fight to make a roster out of summer league, despite a combination of size, shooting, and athleticism that every team in the NBA is looking for these days. Martin, meanwhile, filled the coaching vacancy at Missouri this offseason, having lasted only three seasons each at his past two stops, Cal and Tennessee.

Williams, Gonzaga’s starting power forward, showed his value in the Elite Eight, when he shut down Xavier star Trevon Bluiett, who had been averaging 25 points on 52.2 percent shooting in his first three games in the tournament. At 6-foot-9 and 228 pounds, Williams is a hyperathletic combo forward with the defensive versatility to guard all over the floor, and he hounded Bluiett into a miserable performance, the Musketeer scoring 10 points on 3-of-14 shooting. Williams has the best combination of length and athleticism on Gonzaga’s roster, and he will likely spend a lot of time guarding UNC star Justin Jackson on Monday night.

A four-star recruit out of Memphis, Williams signed with Frank Haith in his final season at Missouri. Haith had inherited an elite program from Mike Anderson, and the team steadily got worse in each of his three seasons in Columbia before he jumped to Tulsa, one step ahead of the boosters calling for his job. Haith left behind a fairly empty cupboard for Kim Anderson, the former Division II coach and Missouri alum who replaced him, and Anderson coached the Tigers to three under-.500 seasons before being fired at the end of the 2016–17 season. If Williams had stayed at Missouri, he would have just graduated, and no one outside of the SEC ever would have heard of him.

All three of Gonzaga’s transfers are fringe NBA talents. Williams-Goss is projected as a second-round pick in 2018 by DraftExpress, while the site has Mathews and Williams as undrafted but among the top 50 players in their respective classes. Williams-Goss has the best chance of the three because he has good size for his NBA position, but his lack of elite athleticism means he still faces an uphill battle to make the league. Mathews would probably have to play a Patty Mills role as a scorer off the bench who defends point guards, and there are a ton of guys at the college level with that skill set. Williams, a redshirt junior, has NBA-caliber size and athleticism at power forward, but the league is moving away from traditional big men at the position, and he’s going to have to continue refining his perimeter game on both sides of the ball in his senior season to have a chance.

For players of their stature, opportunities at the next level depend in large part on the success or failure of their college teams. NBA teams seldom show much interest in drafting guys who play for average to bad college teams, unless they are superstars like Markelle Fultz or Ben Simmons. There are more than 350 programs in Division I basketball, and no one can keep track of all of them. It’s easy for players to slip through the cracks, even in an age when every college game is instantly available online for NBA front offices to evaluate. At the very least, playing in the Final Four does wonders for the scouting profile of guys destined to play professionally overseas.

Williams-Goss, Mathews, and Williams owed it to themselves to play for a coach who knew what he was doing and could put them in positions to succeed. This is the best team Few has ever had at Gonzaga, but the overall talent on the Bulldogs roster still pales in comparison with the group Martin had at Cal last season, or several of the teams Romar had at Washington. Zach Collins, Gonzaga’s backup center, is the only surefire NBA player on their roster. It doesn’t matter how much talent you have on your roster if you don’t know how to use it. Few has slotted the three transfers in roles that fit their games, without asking them to do too much. Players who transfer out of a program are typically criticized as being selfish, but all three of Gonzaga’s mercenaries would have had bigger roles on their teams if they had stayed at their first school. “It’s not a big trade-off,” Mathews told reporters before Senior Night at Gonzaga this season. “I’d rather score 10 points and win than score 20 points and lose.”

Mathews was able to join Gonzaga because of the graduate-transfer rule, a controversial loophole which allows a player to transfer and play immediately if he graduates with athletic eligibility remaining and enrolls in a graduate-level program at a new school that isn’t offered at his first school. College coaches who lose players this way have grumbled about it ever since the rule was instituted in 2011, with Bo Ryan famously saying he didn’t “do rent-a-players” after Wisconsin lost to Duke in the 2015 championship game. There’s no point in pretending that Mathews came to Gonzaga for any reason but to play basketball, but it’s hard to see who was hurt by his decision besides a Cal program that had already shown it couldn’t fully utilize his talent. Mathews got his One Shining Moment because he packed his bags and went somewhere that could.

Johnathan Williams (Getty Images)
Johnathan Williams (Getty Images)

Every year, an increasing number of college basketball players transfer schools in an effort to further their careers, prompting cries from the media and coaches about how it’s ruining the game and how millennials raised on participation trophies can’t handle setback. Players are treating the college game like AAU basketball, an unregulated free-for-all which often sees high school kids switching programs at the drop of a hat in order to get a better opportunity. College coaches have to look out for themselves, but so do the players. Players sign with schools to play for coaches who sell them on how they can use them in their systems. Johnathan Williams signed with Frank Haith, and he left Missouri after one season. Jordan Mathews signed with Mike Montgomery, and he retired from Cal after one season. Coaches leave for better opportunities all the time and no one thinks twice, even though it often leaves their players in a bind. They are getting paid millions of dollars off the labor of kids who don’t get paid anything for their services, which makes it hard to take their complaints all that seriously. Many coaches at smaller schools have even said they are delaying the academic progress of the players so they can’t graduate early and potentially leave their program.

To be sure, most transfers don’t wind up in situations as great as Gonzaga. The grass isn’t always greener on the other side, and there’s often an unflattering reason a player wants to transfer out in the first place. Nevertheless, considering how much student-athletes are exploited by the NCAA’s economic structure, it’s hard to blame them for trying to do what’s best for themselves. There are plenty of bad coaches in the college game, and there’s no reason for a player to play for one if he can avoid it. By changing schools, Nigel Williams-Goss, Jordan Mathews, and Johnathan Williams helped their futures, their new school, and college basketball as a whole, with Gonzaga’s run to the national title game becoming the feel-good story of the tournament. There are plenty of other players around the country watching and learning from their experience. College basketball players have more control over their own careers than ever before, and it’s not as bad for the sport as coaches claim.