In 2010-11, Columbia’s basketball program made many of the strides fans hoped it would when the Lions hired first-year coach Kyle Smith, going 15-13 with an improved 6-8 record in the Ivy League. But Smith’s team experienced a small drop-off in year two, finishing with a 15-15 record while going just 4-10 in league play.
Smith’s first two seasons coaching the University of San Francisco played out the same way: notable progress in year one, followed by slight regression in year two. The Dons posted an overall record of 20-13 in 2016-17 and won two more games the following season, albeit with a lower winning percentage – .606 versus .564 – and had fewer wins in West Coast Conference play.
Success in year three at both stops reaffirmed the decision to hire Smith, but the coach would rather avoid another second-year dip if possible. Next to keeping his team COVID-19-free, that’ll be Smith’s top priority these next four months at Washington State, on the heels of a debut season that went much better than many thought it would.
“We’ve just got to do what we’ve been doing,” Smith said on a Pac-12 webinar Thursday. “This is the third time I’ve had to start up a program, and years two have been a little bit of a dip, and I’m trying to avoid that. Because we’re young, no more function than that. And obviously I would’ve liked to keep CJ (Elleby) and keep that momentum. Get older and keep that talent.”
The Cougars will attempt to build off a 16-16 record while replacing seniors Jeff Pollard and Jervae Robinson, and most notably Elleby, the All-Pac-12 forward who opted to kick-start his professional career rather than return to Pullman for his junior season.
The freshmen Smith signed in the 2020 class have an edge on Pollard, Robinson and even Elleby when it comes to recruiting hype, but even if they give the Cougars a talent boost, the coach can’t do anything to expedite their growth and maturity. Nonetheless, Smith will probably have to lean on freshmen like TJ Bamba, Andrej Jakimovski, Efe Abogidi, Dishon Jackson and Carlos Rosari, in addition to a relatively inexperienced sophomore class that includes Noah Williams, DJ Rodman and Ryan Rapp.
“I feel good about the team, but I always say if you don’t feel good about your team this time of year, you need to quit,” Smith said. “So I like our guys, we’re doing well. It’s just inexperience. But we started a lot of different lineups, some guys have started games. But replacing, we’re not going to have that same lead scorer or guy that’s really going for it every night.”
When Smith was asked if he’d settled on a starting lineup, or had a rough idea of what his starting five may look like, he seemed to infer it would be veteran-heavy.
Guard Isaac Bonton and forward Tony Miller, senior transfers who played at two other schools before joining the Cougars last year, should be shoo-ins, and 7-foot sophomore center Volodymyr Markovetskyy made a strong impression near the end of the 2019-20 season. Williams, who returns as WSU’s best defensive stopper, played in 29 games as a freshman and made 13 starts.
“I’d say right now the veterans are ahead of the young guys, like they should be,” Smith said. “They just have an institutional knowledge or program knowledge, but I think that helps the integrity of our program, and I think it also gives our young guys a little cover, as far as let them find their way in college academically and socially.”
Jefferson Koulibaly, a three-star combo guard who signed with the Cougars out of Hamilton, Ontario, is expected to miss the season with an undisclosed arm injury, Smith confirmed to reporters on Thursday’s Pac-12 webinar.
Koulibaly was seen in an Instagram story post wearing a cast on his right arm and Smith addressed the freshman’s status Thursday morning.
“He’ll probably be out for the season,” Smith said. “Might have a procedure and it should recover, it just takes time. Four months, something like that, so he kind of had that, he’d been playing with that for awhile. There’s no redshirts this year, it’s just a year that he would’ve been able to get back and wanted to help. But he got to practice enough to have a little taste, and he knows what to expect when he gets back, and we have a good understanding, and we’re really excited to have him in our program.”
The coach also said Williams has “missed a lot of practice” due to a concussion and is “a little behind right now.” The sophomore guard returned to practice approximately one week ago and Smith said, “he’s looked good, might take a little time, but I think he’s important.”
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