Washington State men's basketball on the rise under Kyle Smith
Up on the Palouse, Kyle Smith has quietly been assembling a dangerous squad at Washington State.
Smith, who took under-the-radar schools like Columbia and San Francisco to heightened levels of success before landing in Pullman, is doing it again at one of the ultimate underdog schools in high-major basketball.
Taking over a program that had suffered seven consecutive losing seasons, Smith has led the Cougars to a .500 record or better in each of his first two years in Pullman. Washington State went 14-13 last year despite starting four underclassmen much of the season and having one of the youngest rosters throughout the high-major landscape.
Smith’s “Nerdball," which focuses on analytics and is seen as a Moneyball approach to college basketball, is working. Defensively, the Cougars were second in opponent field goal percentage last year and their 67.4 points per game allowed were the fewest they had conceded since 2013-14. WSU beat UCLA, Oregon and Oregon State, all of which made it to at least the Sweet 16.
Recruits are taking notice. After signing four-star center Dishon Jackson in 2020 (Jackson went on to earn Pac-12 All-Freshman Honorable Mention honors last year), Washington State nabbed four-star power forward Mouhamed Gueye, the second-highest ranked recruit in program history.
The Cougs' young roster is still teeming with underclassmen but is getting more experienced. Jackson, Efe Abogidi, Andrej Jakimovski and Noah Williams, who all started as freshmen or sophomores last year, are back. Add in the influx in talent from both the recruiting trail and transfer portal, and the Cougars have put together an impressive roster.
“Our depth is really good this year,” said redshirt junior guard Tyrell Roberts, a UC San Diego transfer who could at least partially fill the shoes left behind by 2020-21 leading scorer Isaac Bonton. “We have a lot of options. It’s just going to take some time for us to gel since we’re so new. There are so many new guys, but once that comes together, I believe in us 100 percent.”
There is momentum building on the Palouse, and the tournament prognosticators have the Cougs on their radar. CBS Sports’ Jerry Palm has Washington State as a 10-seed in his preseason NCAA Tournament bracket, while ESPN’s Joe Lunardi and Andy Katz have Wazzu in their first four out. Regionally, though? Not as much love for the Cougs, who were picked to finish eighth in the Pac-12 men’s basketball preseason media poll, suggesting that West Coast pundits think Washington State will be on the outside looking in come March Madness.
So, are Pac-12 media members underplaying the Cougs, Kyle Smith?
“We’ll find out. That’s why we play the games. Don’t invest too much in that,” Smith coyly said at Pac-12 Men’s Basketball Media Day. “There’s good teams in this league. We’ve been 11th and 10th—we gotta do it. Hopefully eighth will be a little chip on our shoulder, but we gotta do it.”
“We have some things to build on, but it’s just gotta be consistent and keep building there. We don’t really set big goals at the beginning of the season; we are process oriented. I know that everyone talks about our analytics but it really is day to day and you see the growth and at the end of the day the results usually happen so we’ll look forward to it.”
Smith might not have wanted to play the rah-rah game with the media in San Francisco on Wednesday, but he seemed to have a quiet confidence about where his team stood.
“Winter is coming,” Smith quipped, alluding to Game of Thrones. “That’s our theme—come on up to Pullman.”
Considering Smith’s coaching acumen, overall roster continuity and influx of talent, there could be more than a few Red Weddings for visitors to the Palouse.