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WSU Men's Basketball

‘Hard work. Tough. Defense.’ The Kyle Smith era has officially begun at Washington State

Kyle Smith speaks at a press conference in Washington State University’s Rankich Club Room on Monday, April 1, 2019 in Pullman, Wash. Smith has taken over head coaching duties for the men's basketball team. (Libby Kamrowski / The Spokesman-Review)

PULLMAN – With no less than five television cameras pointed at Marvin Cannon, and a few more voice recorders sprinkled in, the beads of sweat started forming on the Washington State sophomore’s hairline, rolling onto his forehead and all the way down to his cheeks.

It’s hard to blame Cannon. Not once since the small forward’s been in Pullman after transferring from junior college has there been this much attention surrounding the men’s basketball program. Hence the perspiration.

But Cannon could’ve also been mistaken for someone who’d just come from one of Kyle Smith’s basketball practices.

The Cougars are still getting acquainted with their new coach – a stage of this process that’s sure to carry over to the 2019-20 basketball season – but two practices have already given them a good sense of the culture shift Smith is setting in motion at Beasley Coliseum.

“First few practices, I’m not going to lie to you, were hard,” Cannon said. “You can tell he’s really into defense, so he’s just been pushing us with defense, rebounds and toughness.”

And, almost in lockstep with his teammate, point guard Jervae Robinson shared a similar account.

“Hard work. Tough. Defense. Just getting after it, really,” Robinson said. “He’s been pushing us and that’s helped us push each other, and we’re just getting better.”

Smith has already shared his vision with the eight players he’s inherited – and sold it to athletic director Pat Chun when the two spoke on the phone for the first time a few weeks ago – but WSU’s new basketball coach gave approximately 100 school officials, media members and fans a glimpse of how he intends to to resurrect the Cougars’ basketball program during an introductory press conference, held Monday afternoon at the Rankich Club Room inside Martin Stadium.

Last Wednesday, WSU officially hired Smith away from the University of San Francisco after three years, signing the 49-year-old to a six-year contract that’ll pay him $1.4 million per year – the same sum the school is paying Ernie Kent each of the next three years while buying out the former coach’s contract.

The impression Smith makes on the court, where the Cougars haven’t produced a winning season since 2011-12, will be the only one that matters in the long run, but the numbers guru who’s renowned for his analytics-driven approach to the game graded out as well as he could have during his first formal introduction.

“A lot of people say Disneyland is the happiest place on Earth,” Smith said. “Let me tell you, Pullman is the friendliest place on Earth.”

Smith will eventually break down more than 50 statistical categories with each of his players, but the coach was only concerned with one or two numbers on Monday.

“We’ve got to make a 20 percent improvement this year, whatever it is,” Smith said.

The one area Smith wants to see instant improvement is the same one Cannon and Robinson alluded to: defense. The coach hinted at WSU’s defensive ineptitude under the last regime, pointing out that the Cougars ranked 291st nationally.

“We don’t need to go much deeper than that, but that’s such an egregious (number),” he said. “We have to get better, just to get in the conversation. All hands on deck, let’s get better here.”

Chun didn’t offer much detail about the school’s search process, but it’s clear Smith’s name was in the pot from the jump.

“One of my junior college coaches, the day coach Kent was fired, they called me and told me about (Smith),” Robinson said.

Smith won at least 20 games in each of his three seasons at USF, but it’s been nearly a decade since the Cougars have cracked that same total. Smith said he understands the risk/reward of the WSU job – “I like to compete” – and said he’s “not naïve to what the history’s been.”

“I just think geographically it’s tricky,” Smith said.

But for at least one day, Smith’s enthusiasm and willingness to take on one of college basketball’s most challenging gigs seemed to set everyone at ease.

“In our first phone call, Kyle Smith made it clear to me he was going to be our next head coach,” Chun said, “and he was actually going to take over the job before we got off the phone.”