Washington State University Basketball has been a dumpster fire in the last five years under former Head Coach Ernie Kent. The Kent era ended with an absolutely embarrassing loss to the University of Oregon in the Pac-12 Tournament. Athletic Director Pat Chun decided a change was necessary. In the offseason, he hired a new head coach in Kyle Smith.
He came in from the University of San Francisco where he was head coach for three years. In that time frame he posted a 63-40 record, which included three- consecutive 20-win seasons. His teams also qualified for two postseason tournaments including a runner up finish in the CBI in 2018.
Before USF, he was the head coach at Columbia University. His record at Columbia was 101-82 over a six-year span. These teams qualified for two postseasons including a championship in the Collegeinsider.com tournament. The Lions were only the second Ivy League team to win a postseason tourney.
Before getting a nod as a head coach, he was an assistant for 18 years at three different Division 1 schools. He spent nine seasons at Saint Mary’s college, one season at Air Force and eight years at the University of San Diego.
He relies on a strategy called “nerdball.” This coaching approach tracks statistical categories that may not be recognized by other coaches.
For example, his staff uses a dozen different categories just for rebounding. I’m not sure how this is even possible, but it is impressive.
They use a total of 38 statistics, including everything from a ball handler blowing by a defender, to a screen assist. Assistant coaches have the dubious task of breaking down 4.5 hours of statistical analysis after practice.
This strategy was initially created when he was an assistant at Saint Mary’s working under head coach Randy Bennett. The duo worked together to revitalize a team coming off a 2-27 campaign. They used Ken Pomeroy’s site and studied the “Moneyball” approach used in the MLB to come up with their own plan of action.
This system proved very effective, turning around the St. Mary’s basketball program, and Smith adopted it as his own, applying it at his first head coaching stint at Columbia.
In a nutshell, he finds a way to get the most productivity out of less talented players. This type of unique approach is what it takes to win in Pullman.
It just takes the right strategy.
Smith places emphasis on defense.
This is probably the biggest element that WSU has been lacking over the past five seasons. Last year, WSU ranked 330th in overall defense, that’s unacceptable.
His teams use the acronym “DRT.” This translates into defend, rebound, and take care of the ball. This is the exact type of mantra needed to change the culture of one of the worst defensive teams in the country. Last season at USF his team was fourth in the conference in scoring defense, second in assist-to-turnover ratio and third in rebounding margin.
His attitude on defense may ingrain a toughness into the Cougs that has been lacking over the past five years.
His strategy was influenced by former WSU head coach Tony Bennett; Bennett won the National Championship this year at the University of Virginia.
While Bennett was a coach at WSU, he led the Cougs’ to back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances, including a trip to the Sweet 16.
Hopefully Smith can create the same type of success on the Palouse.
Pullman Type of Guy
It takes a special type of person to survive in Pullman. The winters are cold, windy and at times downright miserable. But he knows what the Palouse is about; his wife was born in Eastern Washington in the Lake Chelan area. His (or I should say her) familiarity with the region already gives him an advantage over other coaches, who had no idea what they were really getting into.
On top of that, he referenced drinking a beer in the first minute of an interview with a WSU reporter. This is the type of man that the Coug faithful is looking for. He also stated that Pullman is “one of the friendliest places on earth.” Simply put, he gets it.
It is not going to be easy to change the losing habits of WSU basketball. They have been a bottom-dweller for many years now, and it will inevitably take time to turn the program around.
However, I do believe that he will change the program for the better. He is in a similar situation to his aforementioned role at St. Mary’s. The program has nothing to lose, which gives him the freedom to try anything with no added pressure from the school.
I predict that WSU will be on the brink of an NIT birth within the next five years, and that they will look better on the court immediately. I still think they will struggle record-wise this year, but at a minimum, they will play teams tough and be a fun watch.
He comes in with a sparkling reputation, but so did Kent. All that really matters in the end is results. He may be the guy to take the Cougs back to the NCAA tourney.
We’ll just have to wait and see.