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John Blanchette: Washington State’s hiring of Kyle Smith suggests determination more than desperation

UPDATED: Wed., March 27, 2019, 7:48 p.m.

If you look at the history – the raw numbers of history, at least – the easy conclusion to lunge at is that Washington State mixed some unconventional thinking in its search for a new basketball coach with a dash of desperation.

Good thing it’s more nuanced than that.

There’s absolutely nothing desperate about the hiring of Kyle Smith, who is seasoned but still outside the box, a comer but still under the radar – and best of all, accomplished but with no miracle-worker hype burnishing his profile.

It smacks, in fact, of sound thinking – something all too rarely exhibited in the Cougars’ various trawls for basketball leadership over the decades.

Now, will it work?

Reply hazy, try again.

The Cougars have reached Magic 8 Ball stage in their basketball forecast, a nadir not unprecedented but surely unwanted, despite the good souls in the program who have tried to make it work. What’s been missing are enough good players and a good plan – or just a plan – and they’ve been missing long enough now that it puts into question just how plausible it for the Cougars to regain relevance.

Let’s state that a bit more directly: This marriage is a bigger risk for Smith than it is for Wazzu.

If his stay at the University of San Francisco had continued on its current arc, Smith would have been wooed and won by someone eventually. There is no suggestion here that he was at a career crossroads or that the Cougs were his last exit to Majorville – though, yes, 49 can be an itchy age when presented with an opportunity.

But, of course, fans are forever convinced that their school is the one taking the gamble, and rarely can bring themselves to unequivocally signal home run.

In this case, there’s the fact that Smith’s recent success has come in the West Coast Conference, which for Cougs is useful only when it comes time to disparage Gonzaga vis-à-vis the Pac-12.

And, no, it’s not as if the WCC has turbocharged a lot of careers.

It has been 20 years since a coach jumped from the WCC to a Power 5 job, dating back to when Dan Monson left Gonzaga for Minnesota. In the meantime, 20 other WCC coaches have been fired or quit, and BYU’s well-respected Dave Rose retired on Tuesday, though it may have come with a nudge.

Of course, two coaches have dominated the WCC landscape during that time – and with an outsized loyalty. Gonzaga’s Mark Few could have named his next job on almost a yearly basis and Randy Bennett of Saint Mary’s has been just as loyal, though he might be Cal’s coach now had the Bears not tried to lowball him into a next-door-neighbor discount a couple of years ago.

It’s hard to get the big career chance when your ceiling in your own conference is third or fourth place.

This was Smith’s problem, too, in his three short years at USF. He immediately remade the Dons competitively – 20-game winners each year – but never cracked the top three. Maybe for that reason, you would like to have seen him cycle through another wave of recruits there or in his previous stop at Columbia as further validation.

But the Cougs need some hope of a quick repair, too, and Smith’s record hints it’s possible.

His devotion to analytics isn’t exactly Moneyball and exploiting market inefficiencies, but he uses them to adapt, adjust and improve his teams. That’s welcome. So is an offense with Princeton elements that’s not just giddy-up horse – though the Dons fired up their share of 3s, and more.

Still, the real challenge – always – is getting players to Pullman.

He’s not recruiting to New York and San Francisco, but Smith knows the terrain – his wife Katie was a State B tournament legend at Manson before playing for Kelly Graves at Saint Mary’s, where Smith assisted Bennett.

And now he arrives in an intensive care situation not unlike what Dick Bennett stepped into 16 years ago at Wazzu.

Because at the moment, Washington State isn’t a Power 5 job in basketball.

It’s a job in a Power 5 conference.

And until – unless – Kyle Smith can get things going a little, and until – unless – the Cougars’ administration grasps that token investment in the sport isn’t going to get it done, it’s going to stay that way. There wasn’t any lowballing to start: Smith is getting $1.4 million, the same as his predecessor, times six years.

At least it suggests determination more than desperation.

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