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Northwestern-Gonzaga preview: Upset-minded Wildcats will have to shut down Nigel Williams-Goss

Gonzaga’s leading scorer could cause all kinds of problems for Northwestern.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round-Gonzaga vs South Dakota State Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

SALT LAKE CITY -- Northwestern survived its first ever NCAA tournament game on Thursday, but its reward for making history is a tough weekend date with the top-seeded Gonzaga Bulldogs.

In order to pull off the upset over Gonzaga, Northwestern will have to play one of its best defensive games of the year, particularly down low. But the first challenge towards shutting down Gonzaga actually comes out on the perimeter in the form of a 6-foot-3 guard from Happy Valley, Oregon. Nigel Williams-Goss is not just Gonzaga’s leading scorer but one of the biggest threats to Northwestern’s hopes on Saturday.

“He's the guy that makes them go. There's no question he's a great player. He's got a swagger to him, the way he carries himself, his poise,” Chris Collins said. “A big part of what we're going to do to stay in this game is make sure he doesn't go crazy against us.”

Williams-Goss does it all. He leads the Bulldogs in scoring and assists with 16.6 and 4.8 per game respectively while also averaging 5.8 rebounds. He’s scored 20 points or more nine times this season, including three 30-point games, and he has done it incredibly efficiently. He takes fewer than 12 shots per game and averages 51 percent from the field and 36 percent from three. He’s also one of the nation’s best free throw shooters, hitting 90 percent at the line.

He’s easily one of the best players in the country, and his status as a finalist for the Bob Cousy award backs that up.

Williams-Goss had an off day statistically on Thursday against South Dakota St, only scoring 9 points and shooting 4 of 13 from the field, but he was still crucial in helping the Bulldogs coast to victory.

“He brings everything to the team,” Gonzaga head coach Mark Few said. “I don't know that he played that bad yesterday. I mean his leadership, his communication, his toughness, he's probably our best perimeter defender, probably the best rebounder at the guard spot, all that.”

The key for Williams-Goss is that even when he has an off night, he sparks the offense around him by pushing the pace of play. The phrase “one-man fast break” was used by both Chris Collins and the Northwestern players on Friday to describe Williams-Goss’ game, and it’s often where he’s most dangerous.

Gonzaga as a team is only the 81st-fastest in the nation, but the average offensive possession length is 15.7 seconds, good for 34th in the nation. The Bulldogs will occasionally slow it down and try to pound it in the post, but they’re just as lethal when they pick up the pace, mainly thanks to Williams-Goss.

“I knew he was a great player, and then getting a chance to watch them on film a lot. He creates so much offense for them in the open floor,” Collins said. “You really have to do a good job of trying to stop him and forcing them as best you can to play in the half court.”

Getting back on defense is a good start, but the one thing that Northwestern needs to do more than anything else is just hit shots. The only true way to neutralize the fast break is to consistently hit on the other end, forcing the Bulldogs to take it out of their own basket rather than run off of missed shots.

“Shooting good shots is vital,” Sanjay Lumpkin said. “We can't throw up shots on the glass that will start the fast break for them, and especially they have the fast break without that, but if we throw up bad shots it will really get it going for them.”

So neutralizing the fast break is focus number one, but once Gonzaga is in the half court, Williams-Goss is still dangerous. The biggest problem is that Northwestern can’t do a ton to double Williams-Goss or shade over his way because of Williams-Goss’ ability to get his teammates involved.

Gonzaga has four other players who average double digits, and three of them shoot nearly 40 percent from three. It’s truly the double-edged sword of playing such a good team. Either Williams-Goss gets his, or he sets up everyone else.

“He's really efficient. And he has a lot of attention on him, that opens up the floor for a lot of other players,” Gonzaga guard Silas Menson said. “The whole game plan gives me an open three or Josh (Perkins) an open drive, easy post moves.”

The game might very well come down to if Vic Law Jr. can disrupt Williams-Goss in the one-on-one matchup. Law Jr. will most likely be keying in on Williams-Goss right from the tip and follow him around the court all game. It’ll be up to him to not only stop Williams-Goss from getting to the rim but to not let the defense get overextended either.

The All-Big Ten defender will have his work cut out for him as he’ll be out on an island with Northwestern likely doubling in the post. But quick defensive rotations on the perimeter will also be necessary for the entire team defense to stay intact.

“We've got to try and gap it up and get out to their shooters when he kicks it. It's a tough task. He's one of the best players in the country.” Bryant McIntosh said. “Individually I think Vic will probably draw the assignment. So he'll have to do a good initial job.”

Law has shut down team’s top scorers before, but he’ll need to play especially well on the defensive end slow down Williams-Goss effectively. If that happens, then Northwestern might just be able to pull off the biggest win in school history.