PULLMAN – Washington State formally introduced new basketball coach Kyle Smith in front of almost 100 school officials, fans and media members Monday afternoon in the Rankich Club Room at Martin Stadium.
Smith riffed on “Nerdball” – the analytics-driven approach he’ll bring to Pullman – talked about the Cougars’ current roster and covered a variety of other topics during his hour-long introduction.
After interviews with Smith, athletic director Pat Chun and players Jervae Robinson and Marvin Cannon, we compiled 19 takeaways from the introduction of the Cougars’ 19th basketball coach.
1. We’ll stick with “Nerdball” for now, but there may be a few other branding opportunities for the numbers-driven formula Smith has used at Columbia, USF and is now bringing to WSU.
“It’s been ‘Smith-metrics,’ ‘The Matrix,’ we’re trying to match someone with Air Raid let’s be honest,” Smith said. “So maybe it’s ‘Data Attack.’ Or we can stick with Nerdball. I’m OK with Nerdball.”
2. The motion-tracking system that Smith’s teams at USF utilized will be integrated at WSU, too, though it might not happen immediately. The advanced cameras that the Dons set up around War Memorial Gym in San Francisco are similar to the ones used at every practice gym in the NBA.
“It’s amazing stuff because it gets down to your shot contest, down to measuring inches and that,” Smith said. “So what you can’t tell with the naked eye. We’re always grading stuff like that. In the moment, you have a better feel. Then you watch it on film and you grade it. But this actually gives you distance, time. It matters, it’ll be something we definitely.”
3. It’s common for players to re-explore their options when one coach is fired and another is hired. In many cases, it’s the right path. But Robinson, a point guard who scored 4.6 points per game during his debut season at the Division I level, said he’d already built up too much equity at WSU and never considered a transfer.
“Everyone wants to keep their options open, but I’ve wanted to be at the highest level for forever,” he said. “I did two years at junior college to be at this level, not to waver and go back and forth to different places. So I think it’s been pretty easy for me. I believe in coach Smith so far.”
4. Re-recruiting the current Cougars will be as important as going after the future ones, at least in the early going, and Smith made his pitch to forward Jeff Pollard – who Ernie Kent often called his “glue guy” last season – during the press conference. An All-Pac-12 Academic selection who started in 23 of the 29 games he played in last year, Pollard has entered the NCAA’s transfer portal, but is reportedly still considering a return to Pullman for his senior season.
“There is one guy that’s on an official visit right now and I’m going to try to reel him back in,” Smith said. “I’m calling him out, it’s Jeff Pollard. He’s going to be mad, I know it, but you are welcome here brother. You are a Coug, so we want you back. I’ll go biblical and the story of the prodigal son, man, in open arms you come back. We’re all hugs, we’re all love. So I’d love to have him and I think we will.”
5. CJ Elleby entered his name into the NBA Draft this week, but has yet to hire an agent, meaning the Cougars could get the freshman and his 14.7 points per game/7.1 rebounds per game back next season. Elleby’s attended both of the practices Smith has held so far.
“If he has a promise, he should stay (in the draft),” Smith said. “I don’t know if you should ever turn that down. If it’s a promise to be a first-round pick, but the unfortunate thing is there’s that margin if you’re not that, then it becomes a much harder row to hoe. But I would say you only get this opportunity to play, it’s this adolescence to young adulthood, 18-22-year-olds where you’re around guys the same age.”
6. There’s eight players on Smith’s roster for now, presuming both Elleby and Pollard return. The core group, which also includes Robinson, Cannon, Ahmed Ali, Jaz Kunc, Chance Moore and Isaiah Wade, has given itself a nickname: the “Elite Eight” or the “Almighty Eight.”
“Us, with the Elite Eight guys, we’re just ready to work for him and just ready to be everything he needs for him and just go hard for him,” Cannon said.
It’s possible none of the eight will ever play in an NCAA Tournament, let alone a postseason game, but Smith called them the foundational pieces who’d receive their due credit years down the road.
“These two practices, at the end of the practices … I said, ‘This is our origin story,’ ” Smith said. “ ‘When we turn this thing around and go to the NCAA Tournament, it’s you eight guys that had a lot to do with this.’ ”
7. Chun’s financial commitment to the turnaround of the basketball program was a major point of conversation when Kent was fired – a move that’ll cost the university $4.2 million over the next three years. WSU’s Board of Regents approved a request that’ll allow the basketball program to spend $500,000 on hiring a basketball staff and Chun said a variety of boosters have committed funds to the basketball program, helping defray what it cost to fire Kent.
“There have been donors that have already communicated to us that they want to help, they’re willing to help,” he said. “We’ve really just been telling people the best way to help was to buy season tickets.”
8. Chun also said Beasley Coliseum reached 80 percent capacity during the pinnacle of the Tony Bennett era. By contrast, the basketball arena struggled to reach 20 percent capacity during Kent’s final season.
“That’s significant revenue that really mitigates a lot of this,” Chun said. “But the financial upside for us is selling tickets at Beasley. We’ve got to get students and fans that want to come out, but we feel like at least this is a step in that direction.”
9. Derrick Phelps was on Smith’s staff for two years at Columbia and all three years while the coach was at USF. It appears he’s agreed to help with Smith’s rebuild in Pullman, too. Because of formalities, Smith couldn’t announce Phelps, officially, but he did hint to it, saying one of his two assistants had “won a national championship – that’s the highest mountain you can achieve.”
Phelps was the starting point guard on North Carolina’s 1993 national-championship winning team.
10. The Cougars ranked 330th nationally in total defense last season. Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted defensive efficiency rating scored them at 110.3, which ranked 284th in the NCAA. Smith called those numbers “egregious” and assured defense was his top priority.
“We confronted the brutal facts of the team,” Smith said. “… In our two practices, a lot of time’s been dedicated to trying to get better defensively. We’ve got to start there.”
11. Smith’s teams utilize the acronym “DRT” (pronounced like “dirt”). That stands for, “defend, rebound, take care of the ball.”
Last season, Smith’s USF team ranked fourth in the WCC in scoring defense (67.8 ppg), third in rebounding margin (plus 3.2) and second in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.4).
12. Former WSU coach Tony Bennett, headed to the Final Four with Virginia this weekend, was influential in Smith’s upbringing as a coach and there’s a few comparisons to be made between their philosophies – most notably their attention to defense.
“Tony and I have a couple things in common,” Smith said. “You wouldn’t know by our last name, but we’re both Italian and we both coach basketball. Please don’t hold me up, please don’t make me like Saint Tony. I’m not a saint, that guy might be a saint.”
13. Smith once rejected an offer from Bennett to join the coach’s staff in Pullman as an assistant. Lorenzo Romar once got a ‘no’ from Smith, too. He shared those stories with a few reporters.
“Lorenzo offered me a job when I was 31 and it would’ve been my third job in three years and I said, no I’m staying at Saint Mary’s, they told me I’d be the next head coach. Randy (Bennett) is still there,” Smith said, laughing. “Then I remember sitting there, Tony, we were out recruiting and watching James Harden and I still remember vividly and he’s like, ‘Let’s talk.’ And he offered me a job for $20,000 less than I was making at Saint Mary’s and said come up here.”
14. Bennett also stole one of Smith’s recruits while Smith was still coaching in the Ivy League, at Columbia. That player, Ty Jerome, is the point guard who’ll be starting for the Cavaliers when they take on Auburn this Saturday in Minneapolis.
“Let that be known,” Smith said. “Ty Jerome was committed to us as a ninth grader, I was livid. He was in our gym in Columbia every day.”
15. The small-school state basketball tournament in Spokane, affectionately known as “State B,” was mentioned during the press conference. Smith’s wife, Katie, broke the single-game state tournament scoring record in 1998, previously held by current Cougar volleyball coach Jen Greeny – then Jen Stinson – while playing for Manson High School.
“In most parts of eastern Washington, I’m definitely not the most famous (family) member,” Smith said. “… True story, I was on the bus one time and this bus driver was talking about the Class B championships – which I’m like, ‘This is insane’ – and he mentioned he saw this girl score 50 and he talked about, she beat out Jen Stinson. I’m like, I was an assistant at Saint Mary’s, I said ‘That’s my wife.’ ”
16. Both of the WSU players who showed up to Smith’s introductory conference said they put their coach’s name into a search engine before meeting him in person for the first time.
“I wanted to do my research before I met him,” Cannon said, “… Read nothing but good things about him and just how he built programs and how great of a guy he is.”
17. When Smith and Chun spoke on the phone, the coach posed a question to the athletic director that Smith later said affirmed his trust in the man who’d be hiring him.
“I said, ‘Well if I go up there and do a good job (with the interview), are you going to offer me the job?’ ” Smith recalled. “He said no. And I said, I can trust this guy. Truthfully.”
18. Chun hadn’t spoken in a true media setting about what factored into the decision to move on from Kent, but gave a more detailed explanation Monday.
“The number one priority is the current student athletes and their experience just wasn’t what they wanted it to be and I get it, that’s part of the wins and losses,” Chun said. “The second piece is, we’ve got to stop the regression and erosion of our program. You can look at the numbers since the 2010-11 season and our arc has been straight downhill.”
19. Both of the former Cougars now playing in the NBA, Klay Thompson of the Golden State Warriors and Aron Baynes of the Boston Celtics, were consulted about the school’s coaching search. A conversation with Baynes was especially helpful, Chun said.
“We reached out to Klay, I made communication lines open with Klay,” Chun said. “He has a lot of pride in this program. But I give Aron (credit). We talked for 30 minutes after one of his games. … With Aron, his belief in international players and Australian players specifically really opened my eyes up to what we could be and add to our profile.
“If we need to recruit to win, we need the right type of players. He walked through why he ended up at Washington State, why he felt like Washington State was a great option for Australian players, why the development in Australia was so great.”
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