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While isolating at home, Kyle Smith still ‘really, really involved’ as Washington State prepares for opener

UPDATED: Mon., Nov. 23, 2020

WSU coach Kyle Smith reacts after his team scores against Colorado in a game on Jan. 23, 2020, in Boulder, Colo.  (Associated Press)
WSU coach Kyle Smith reacts after his team scores against Colorado in a game on Jan. 23, 2020, in Boulder, Colo. (Associated Press)

While recovering from COVID-19, Kyle Smith has temporarily put his basketball team in the hands of Jim Shaw and shouldn’t have much to worry about when Washington State tips off Wednesday without its head coach on the bench at Beasley Coliseum.

Shaw, after all, was an assistant coach for six years before Smith graduated from Hamilton College in 1992, and he’s been in the business for 34 years – including 25 at the Division I level.

Shaw isn’t exactly inexperienced as a head coach, the position he’ll take until Smith is out of COVID-19 protocol. From 2015-19, he led his alma mater, Western Oregon, to the NCAA Division II Tournament three times in four years, as well as the country’s No. 1 ranking in 2015-16.

The Cougars aren’t exactly facing Goliath when Texas Southern – a team ranked No. 233 by – comes to town either, and they should be in fine shape with Shaw calling shots for the short-term. Smith knows it, but it doesn’t mean the 51-year-old coach has been able to detach himself since he entered quarantine last week.

“Well obviously it’s an adjustment, but Kyle has stayed really involved,” Shaw said, “and he talks to the guys before practice, after practice. Talks to us multiple times a day. He has stayed really, really involved, so though it’s an adjustment, I think it’s been minimized a lot by just how much involvement he still has.”

When the Cougars held an intersquad scrimmage over the weekend, Smith was still able to observe, finagling his way into the gym through the video platform Zoom. Whenever he wanted to make a coaching point, Smith would send a text message to graduate operations manager Anthony Lorenzo, but the frequency of Smith’s communications eventually prompted Lorenzo to respectfully ignore the coach.

“I think Anthony hears from him a lot, lot, lot,” Shaw said. “… Anthony said, ‘I finally had to turn my phone off because somehow coach is watching the scrimmage on Zoom,’ and texting Anthony 10 or 12 times. So, we all hear from him on a pretty regular basis and I think Anthony really hears from him a lot.”

Shaw anticipates the Cougars won’t get through Wednesday’s game without hearing from Smith in some form or fashion.

“Somehow, I think he’ll find a way,” Shaw said. “Because like I said, the amount of Zoom time. We’ve talked to him more since he’s been gone than when he was here.”

It’s still unclear if Smith, who announced last Thursday he’d contracted COVID-19, will be cleared to coach Saturday’s home game against Eastern Washington. The Eagles are having some COVID-19 issues of their own. On Monday, The Spokesman-Review reported two EWU starters had come down with the virus, putting a season-opener against Oregon in jeopardy.

“That’s something that’s outside my lane, so therefore I’m not sure,” Shaw said of Smith’s status moving forward. “All the different protocols and guidelines that are being done by all the people around, above me, and in the medical field will decide that. I think he feels pretty well. For sure, he’s pretty active on the Zoom.”

There’s not much of a learning curve for Shaw and the second-year WSU assistant said it’ll be important to infuse his own personality while carrying out Smith’s game plan.

“Fortunately I’ve been a head coach and I’ve coached a lot of games, so you have to be who you are,” Shaw said. “The biggest difference is, it’s not the exact same system we utilized where I was at before. So, you use your own personality and it’s like being a substitute teacher. You have to make sure their lesson plans get executed as well as possible.”

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