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Unleashed: Inside The Huskies’ “Mission” In Las Vegas
Release: 03/12/2014
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From exit-row seats to heart-rate monitors, dinner at Nigel Williams-Goss’ house and gawking in the casino, there is so much more to UW’s appearance at the Pac-12 tournament than meets most eyes.

By Gregg Bell
UW Director of Writing

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LAS VEGAS – C.J. Wilcox was too into the Huskies’ comeback during the game to contemplate that this may have been his final one at Washington.

Even when the Huskies were down by 10 to Utah Wednesday afternoon in the first round of the Pac-12 tournament here, even while he was making 4 of 15 shots, the fifth-year senior wasn’t thinking this could be his finale.

“Not really, until the end,” Wilcox said in a hallway of MGM Grand Garden Arena following UW’s 67-61 loss that ended its mission to win four games in four days here soon after it starter. “When (Dakarai) Tucker hit that 3 (to put Utah ahead 63-60 with 38 seconds left) it started to hit me that, ‘Whoa, this could be it.’

“But it really didn’t hit until after the game.”

That’s when the finality of tournament basketball in March hit every Husky. In a span of five hours the Dawgs (17-15) went from chasing a last chance at an NCAA tournament berth to checking out of the MGM Grand hotel and getting to a 7:30 p.m. flight back to Seattle Wednesday night.

Yet even during a stay as short as this one, there was so much more to the Huskies’ task than what you saw during the game here.

Here is a behind-the-scenes look at how much more:

Tuesday, 7:08 a.m.: Huskies big men Perris Blackwell and Gilles Dierickx, wearing their team hoodies with matching sweatpants, walk from UW’s E-1 parking lot in front of the Graves Building just as dawn breaks into a beautiful day in Seattle. They and their teammates are on their way to the team bus for the ride to SeaTac Airport and the flight to Las Vegas.

A minivan is parked next to the bus. A caterer is handing out plastic-covered breakfast of egg burritos, hash browns and fruit to the Huskies as they board.

7:30 a.m.: The bus pulls out with all players, managers, and assistant coach Raphael Chillious. Romar, his wife Leona and the rest of the coaching staff are getting their own ways to the airport and will meet the team there, as some will be returning at different times.

Anthony Gabriel, assistant director of administration for UW’s office of Student-Athlete Academic Services, is on board. The former football player at Stanford is on the trip to proctor tests that will be sent back electronically to UW, and to conduct study tables for the players while they are away.

So, no, not quiet everything that happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.

“What day is that quiz again, Perris?” Gabriel asks Blackwell on the bus.

“Thursday,” the senior power forward replies.

That’s the day of a potential quarterfinal against Arizona, if Washington can beat Utah first.

9:15 a.m.: The players wait until the last boarding call for Alaska Airlines flight #602 before getting on the Boeing 737-800. When you are 6-foot-5, as Wilcox is, or 6-10 and coming off reconstructive knee surgery as Jernard Jarreau is, every minute with your frame not crammed into 10C counts.

Once on board Wilcox, 6-7 Desmond Simmons and 6-5 Darin Johnson are among the Huskies who happily seize the exit rows and their added leg room.

From there, it’s mostly Beats by Dre or ear buds over the players’ ears – or sleep – for the two-hour, six-minute flight to Las Vegas.

9:51 a.m.: Because of those headphones or sleep, most Huskies don’t notice or look as the pilot points out the brilliantly clear view inside Mount St. Helen’s crater below.

12:19 p.m.: Now awake after landing in Las Vegas and picking up their gear from baggage claim, the players do notice the giant In N Out Burger sign and fast-food joint astride the freeway, a few blocks west of their MGM Grand hotel. Four players on the bus are from California, the birthplace of In N Out: Blackwell, Simmons, Johnson and Jahmel Taylor. It won’t be the last time they notice that place on this trip.

12:23 p.m.: As the Huskies get off their bus from a short ride from McCarran Airport and walk through the front doors of the MGM Grand hotel, the first attraction they pass is MGM’s iconic, gold lion. It’s standing guard a few feet inside the sliding doors, with an orange half-rim and net rainbowing over it.

Freshman point guard Nigel Williams-Goss knows this area well. He was the first four-year player at national powerhouse Findlay Prep a few miles southeast of the Strip in suburban Henderson, before signing with UW last year. His is one of the player images on the Pac-12 banner that wraps the bottom perimeter of the gold lion display.

(By the way, the real, live lion is no longer on display here at the MGM, for humane reasons).

12:50 p.m.: After dropping their bags off in their rooms upstairs, the Huskies walk en masse past the blackjack tables, roulette wheels and video-poker machines in the casino downstairs to the MGM Grand Buffet dining room for lunch.

The unique scene is even more of an odd juxtaposition of sports and society on tournament game days. That’s when 18-to-22 college players stroll through the casino in their uniforms and team warm-ups on their way to the MGM Grand Garden Arena, which down a hotel corridor past a food-court area and daiquiri bar but before the MGM’s mammoth outdoor pool.

For now, the lunch is a hit. It has every variety of food one can imagine.

“Hey, 24-hour rule!” sophomore guard Andrew Andrews jokingly reminds his teammates as they pass   sausage bar.

Strength and conditioning coach Daniel Shapiro is in his first season with his hometown Huskies after having the same job for eight seasons with the Sacramento Kings. He is also the team’s nutritionist. He has a rule that players avoid eating fried foods or anything else that might bog them down immediately before a game.

The “24-hour rule” is why Williams-Goss’ family will not be having Nigel’s favorite fried chicken later Tuesday when the Huskies have dinner at his house.

“It’s getting catered in instead,” Williams-Goss says, a little ruefully.

3:20 p.m.: After short bus trip made longer by stopped traffic – traffic even backs up around The Strip at 3 p.m. on a Tuesday in mid-March – the Huskies start practice at a tiny side gym at Clark High School on Las Vegas’ west side. Last March, before UW played Oregon in the Pac-12 quarterfinals, the Dawgs practiced on Clark’s main gym next door.

That’s where Williams-Goss has played in some summer AAU games, but never when he was the point guard for Findlay Prep. The national high school powerhouse is where Williams-Goss became its first four-year varsity player, but it didn’t play but a few Las Vegas teams each season.

“Get on your straps!” Shapiro calls out to the Huskies as they take the floor.

“The straps” are the devices that Shapiro uses for accelerometry, the measuring of how each Husky’s body accelerates during practices and games. The conditioning coach uses a physiological status monitoring system made by Zephyr, an Annapolis, Md.-based company. Each player wears a microchip sewn into a black belt he straps around his torso and chest beneath practice and game jerseys each day. Shapiro has a laptop that shows each player’s mechanical, physical and training loads. The microchips measure heart rates and calories burned. During a practice or game, or over a series of practices, Shapiro can tell how close to full target “load” a player is – or isn’t.

When the coaching staff wonders if the practices are breaking down the players, Shapiro is able to tell if each Husky is within or beyond his target loads during practices, based upon their physiological tracking numbers during workouts.

This practice is a relatively lighter one, 90 minutes and mostly to go over the scouting report of Utah. Williams-Goss’ numbers midway through the practice show a heart rate of 108. Simmons’ is 115. Meanwhile Wilcox, running off so many screens as usual, even during a lighter practice the day before a game, had his heart rate up to 148. Yet even he has burned only 120 calories so far.

The Huskies are one of a relatively small number of college teams wearing the devices during every practice and every game. Shapiro gets reams of data each day from the Zephyr system. He has yet to have time to analyze much of it, to spot trends that may correlate the physiological numbers with, say, a player’s performance in a given game.

Shapiro packed the brown paper bags each player got on the bus ride to SeaTac early Tuesday. For each road trip Shapiro orders and packs snack bags with healthier goodies such as fruit rolls, granola bars and trail mix. He wants players to avoid the need to run out to a snack shop on the road for Snickers bars or other less-desirable, empty-calorie options.

“If there is a better strength and conditioning coach in the country,” Romar said Sunday night at the team’s annual banquet, “I’d like to meet him.”

4:58 p.m.: After Williams-Goss and Mike Anderson, among others, lead with motivating roars throughout a spirited practice, Romar ends it with three simple words.

“OK, let’s go.”

Romar huddles the team at the center of the tiny Clark High side gym. He re-emphasizes the ways the Huskies can beat Utah, with whom UW split two regular-season games.

On-ball and help defense in the lane against guard Delon Wright will be key Wednesday beginning at noon.

As the Huskies break to gather cell phones and room keys and get back on the bus to the hotel, I mention to Romar that it seemed to be a lively practice.

“It was,” the coach said. “And (Monday’s) was, too.

“Utah, they are tough to play. But we know what we did wrong the last time we played them (a 78-69 loss in Salt Lake City on Feb. 6). It’s obvious to us what we have to do.

“I’m excited.”

5:20 p.m.: It’s crowded inside the MGM Grand. Tournament teams and their fans are arriving. Conventions – including one that has kept the Huskies and every other league team from practicing in the game venue of the MGM Grand Garden Arena on Tuesday – are letting out.

Inside the MGM casino just off the lobby heads are turning – up -- to get a look at the exceptionally tall guys in sweats who obviously aren’t conventioneers.

The late-afternoon crowd and energy is like the vibe UW experienced last year on game days in the first Pac-12 tournament played here, after so many years playing in front of crickets at the cavernous, empty Staples Center in Los Angeles.

“You look at the turnout in Los Angeles compared to last year in Las Vegas, it was considerable how many fans that we had,” Romar said.

The conference announced Tuesday that two sessions for this year’s tournament are sold out so far. The first is the one Thursday afternoon, in which regular-season champion Arizona will play the winner of the Huskies-Utah game and fourth-seeded California will meet the winner of USC versus Colorado. The other sellout is Friday night’s semifinal doubleheader.

The capacity of the MGM Grand Garden Arena for the Pac-12 tournament is 13,151.

“The atmosphere. The support the fan support. There just seems to be more interest around the tournament here,” Romar said.

“This is much better, a much better atmosphere,” Wilcox said. “It’s just more live, and it makes you more amped to play the games.”

6:50 p.m.: After a 20-minute bus ride out Interstate 215 the Huskies’ team bus rolls up to a gated community and guard house in suburban Henderson, southeast of the Las Vegas Strip. This is where Williams-Goss’ parents, Valerie and Virgil, now live.

“Maaaaannnn!” is the call from the back of the bus as it pulls up next to some big, stucco homes. The driver stops to talk to the community’s guard.

Williams-Goss’ parents moved the family from Happy Valley, Ore., just outside Portland to Henderson before Nigel entered ninth grade, so he could play basketball down the street from their house, at Findlay Prep. The house Nigel lived in during high school is actually three minutes and on the other side of a golf course from the one that is on the other side of this gate at which the bus is stopped.

Once granted access the bus rolls past more stucco houses with tile roofs before coming to a cul-de-sac. Williams-Goss’ dad is standing out front to welcome the Huskies to Nigel’s home for dinner.

Virgil Williams-Goss greets Romar and his wife Leona with hugs in the driveway. He greets his son, named Monday to the Pac-12’s all-freshman team and owner of the most assists (129) by a freshman in Huskies history, with another hug and “Welcome home, Nige!”

Inside, below vaulted ceilings and on light carpeting in the two-story, 3,330-square-foot home, Nigel’s mom greets the team like she’d just seen them on Saturday. Turns out, she had. The private-practice therapist finishing up her Ph D. in human service and her husband, a former Air Force staff sergeant and now AAU basketball coach who also works in the insurance industry, have come to just about every one of their son’s games for the Huskies this season (Except Tulane, but we’ll excuse them from that trip to New Orleans the week before Christmas).

The first thing Nigel does inside his house is what any kid does coming home from school, right? He reaches reach for the remote.

There are cousins of Nigel’s at the dining room table. A former AAU teammate in Las Vegas is here, about to enroll at UNLV to play football. Nigel’s best friend since fourth grade in Oregon is here, too. He made the five-hour drive from Brigham Young in Provo, Utah, where he now goes to school, to see Nigel tonight and at Wednesday’s game.

Williams-Goss’ parents have had various players on Virgil’s AAU team stay with them in this home for recently, and some of them are here, too.

It’s just one, big Nigel-fest. And it’s a great way to spend a night before a game to keep your season going.

Another example of the family atmosphere that permeates Romar’s program.

The catered food is from Olive Garden, and it’s a feast: Spaghetti; chicken parmesan; chicken fettuccine; lasagna; meatballs; bread sticks – so many Virgil seems to be pulling bags of those out of the oven every three minutes. There are also cookies and cupcakes – oh, and the gallon jugs of fruit punch.

“Looks at these! Remember these?” Leona Romar says to her husband in Williams-Goss’ kitchen, thinking bag to raising three daughters. “We always had so many of these!”

Most of the guys are eating in front of the TV, watching Gonzaga beat BYU in the West Coast Conference championship game being played down the road at the Orleans hotel. I eat with Blackwell, Dierickx, Connor Smith and a few others out back, on the patio next to the in-ground pool.

Nigel’s bedroom is a shrine to his basketball past, back to elementary school when newspaper clippings from then describe how he was an AAU select-team prodigy in Oregon. On one wall is his jersey from the USA Under-19 world champions on which he played for Florida coach Billy Donovan last summer in the Czech Republic.  Four jerseys hang on another wall, including his number 0 from Findlay Prep and his number 0 from last summer’s McDonald’s All-America game.

8:35 p.m.: Back at the MGM. Another zoo in the lobby, one that this time has some players gawking.

Sharing an elevator ride back to our rooms, I mention to Williams-Goss it must be neat for him to come home – literally – the night before his most important games yet in college.

“Yeah, that was really nice. It was great to have all the guys over,” he said.

“Pretty cool.”

9:30 p.m.: As the lights on the Strip gleam and glow, as the roller coaster at New York New York across Las  Vegas Boulevard rolls on, the Husky players meet in the team suite at the end of their floor for film study of Utah. The meeting is led by assistant coach T.J. Otzelberger, who was the lead contributor on the scouting report for the Utes. Romar chimes in for emphasis on certain coaching points.

After that players have some time to hang out downstairs with friends and family members that are here, prior to curfew time at 11 p.m. when they all must be in their rooms. Players inform director of basketball operations Lance LaVetter of the number of tickets they would like to request for Wednesday’s game; Williams-Goss is seeking a team-high 14. Some guys snack on sandwiches, which given the mammoth meal they just had at the Williams-Goss house is hard to believe.

Midnight: The unexpected for which no coach can prepare: Starting guard Andrew Andrews begins throwing up in his room. He began feeling ill as he arrived at Williams-Goss’ house and didn’t eat much there. Andrews is up most of the night sick, thinking he won’t be able to play.

8:30 a.m. Wednesday: As the Huskies gather around a fountain in a side lobby waiting to walk to breakfast, Romar is talking Larry Krystkowiak – the coach of the team against which UW will be tipping off in 90 minutes. The two coaches, one in UW gray team sweats and the other in Utah red, exchange chuckles and back slaps.

“All right, buddy,” Krystkowiak says to Romar as he walks away.

The Huskies again walk through the casino most are too young to play in, to the buffet room for breakfast. Morning gamblers ask “Do you play today?” Blackjack dealers in blue dress shirts and ties look of from their cards.

The Huskies and Utes share the same omelet line. Opposing players acknowledge each other with head nods but not much more.

Soon the Huskies will be picking up their purple uniforms – they’ve only brought purple, and gold if they should advance and meet a lower seed. They will meet at the end of the hall outside their rooms to walk back through the casino and to the arena.

11:30 a.m.: As the rest of his teammates warm up a half hour before tipoff, Andrews takes intravenous fluids in the locker room. He last threw up at 10:15. He is going to give it a try and play.

12:53 p.m.: The Huskies shoot just 27 percent and trail Utah by 10 at halftime. Andrews makes one of three shots in the half and seems to be going on sheer will. But the Dawgs believe if they come out focused more on defense and shoot better, they have a chance to rally.

And they do.

1:30 p.m: Johnson continues his 16-point, breakout game with a 3-point play that gives UW the lead 41-40 with 11:30 remaining. It’s the first time the Huskies have led since 2-0. The bench – and the purple crowd behind it, including Huskies Director of Athletics Scott Woodward – love it. “Go! Huskies!” chants echo through the 3/4th-full arena.

2:00 p.m.: Williams-Goss misses a 3-pointer from beyond the top of the key with 18 seconds left. Utah makes the clinching free throws from there to win 67-61. Williams-Goss looks distraught afterward. Simmons keeps a towel pressed on top of his head. Wilcox stares straight ahead, into a future in the NBA that’s never been closer than this moment.

“I’ve learned a lot since I’ve been here. It’s been a lot of years,” Huskies’ No. 2 career scorer said. “Being under (coach Lorenzo) Romar he’s helped me grow in a lot of ways, on and off the floor.

“I’m proud of what I’ve done.”

3:10 p.m.: Back in their team suite on the 15th floor at the MGM Grand hotel, the Huskies pick up a postgame meal of Chipotle burritos. Director of Operations Lance LaVetter informs the players and staff of a 5:45 p.m. departure from the hotel and 7:30 flight back to Seattle. Players shuffle in and out of the room quietly.

They’ll be back home by the time the final first-round game here is ending.

Yes, the end in basketball comes quickly, stunningly, in March.

Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director or Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for the Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He receive a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000. 

Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on each Wednesday.

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