WSU IS RANKED: An ode to Kyle Smith

He's always been a great coach. It's just that everyone is finally noticing.

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Photo by Ashley Davis/CougCenter.com (used with permission)

A History Lesson

Yesterday, WSU jumped into the Associated Press Top 25 poll at No. 21.

For many schools, such an occasion is routine, or at least routine enough that it’s worthy of only smiles and mild celebration. For us, it’s an event so rare so as to elicit jubilation: That 302-week drought dates back to the end of the 2008 season. It’s just the 38th week ever — in the entire history of the AP poll, dating back to 1948-49 — that WSU has been ranked. It’s cast into even more stark relief when you realize that Tony Bennett amassed 29 of those 38 over just two seasons.

Kyle Smith is now the proud owner of 1 of those 38 weeks, joining an extremely exclusive club at WSU; only Bennett, George Raveling, and Jack Friel have ever led the Cougars to a top 25 ranking. Not even Kelvin Sampson can claim one.

Which is why I want to take a moment today to appreciate our coach.

The most memorable and enjoyable seasons are the great ones that seem to come out of nowhere. I can point to a handful of those in my lifetime: Bennett’s aforementioned squads, the 1997 WSU football team, the 2012 Seahawks, the 1995 Mariners.

This one isn’t over, so I’m not going to place them in that “pantheon” yet. But we’re obviously trending that direction, and excitement is building around the program to levels we haven’t seen in nearly a generation.

To be honest, I’m a lot less shocked that this is happening than a lot of you probably are. I’m not going to lie to you and tell you that I saw this coming; in fact, I figured just getting back to the NIT would be a pretty great accomplishment for these guys. But I believed another NIT was possible, and if that was possible, it’s not a huge leap to think that an NCAA tournament appearance is possible.

My belief was not reflective of the consensus. WSU was picked 10th in the Pac-12 preseason poll, which seemed patently insane to me. Not just because I’m a Coug and a Kyle Smith fan — which I obviously am — but because anyone who has paid any attention to Smith’s career would know that there was almost zero chance of that happening.

Two years ago, Craig wrote at CougCenter about Smith’s long history of overperforming his teams’ projections — not only at WSU, but also at Columbia and San Francisco. He noted, “Smith’s teams have beaten their initial KenPom rank in nine of 11 seasons. On average, those squads gain 30 spots.”1 It looked like this back then:

When we add the last two seasons, it becomes 11 of 13, with the 2022 squad jumping 19 spots (63 to 44) and last year’s team improving four spots (71 to 67).2 

Of course, Smith is going to make it 12 out of 14 at the end of this season — and 5 for 5 in Pullman: WSU began the year ranked 84th, but now sits 33rd. That’s WSU’s highest in-season ranking since the first half of 2011, in which the Cougs spent the entirety of Klay Thompson’s final season in Pullman around the NCAA tournament bubble.

I think there are a couple of primary reasons why Smith is able to do this almost every year.

Talent Evaluation

First of all, it’s clear that Smith amasses talent that is undervalued by kenpom in its projections.

Ken Pomeroy himself doesn’t rate the teams, which would be a ridiculous undertaking. Instead, he made an algorithm to do it that’s based on the things that most closely correlate with outcomes: historical program performance, the previous season’s performance, returning minutes, player experience, previous Division I performance (for transfers), recruiting rankings, etc.

When you’re coaching at a program that hasn’t historically been good and isn’t regularly recruiting guys in the top 150 — as Smith always has — it’s easy to see how someone who’s good at building rosters with undervalued talent can get overlooked with kenpom’s projection.

I’m reminded of a story I wrote about Smith right after he got hired,3 as he was trying to assemble a roster that could improve on Ernie Kent’s final squad (kenpom rank: 207). We talked about his philosophy in recruiting, how analytics played into that, and what sorts of players fit his vision.

In that story, he cited a number of examples of guys he had recruited in the past who turned out to be very good. There also were a number of players in the story that WSU had been linked with. Noah Williams was the only one of them that they signed; he turned out to be pretty good! They also were seemingly close to landing a skinny kid from South Korea named Hyunjung Lee who ended up at Davidson. You might not have heard of him, but he was really, really good for Bob McKillop — one of the best players on a team that finished No. 40 in kenpom and earned an at-large bid to the tournament in 2022.

Smith clearly can identify talent, and this year’s team is just more evidence of that. It’s not just that he had to rebuild the roster after losing his top four scorers; he had to do it without the benefit of the piles of NIL cash that most of his direct competitors can wield. Think about where WSU’s key transfers came from:

  • Isaac Jones, from Idaho and the Big Sky.

  • Oscar Cluff, from Cochise College, a juco in Arizona; 247 reports that he had one other P6 offer (from Cal), but I don’t know how serious that was.

  • Jaylen Wells, from Division II Sonoma State; as far as I can tell, he had no other P6 offers.

Then consider where the guys who already were on the roster came from, recruited out of high school:

  • Myles Rice was a lightly recruited player from Georgia who was 227th in 247’s national rankings three years ago.

  • Andrej Jakimovski is from North Macedonia. He committed sort of out of nowhere and eventually received a four-star rating, but that was after the fact.

  • Kymany Houinsou is from France, and was so unheralded as a recruit that they just gave him a 2-star ranking and didn’t even bother to evaluate him.

Probably the one, lone exception to all this4 is Rueben Chinyelu; by the end of his recruitment, there were a bunch of other high major teams after him, and WSU beat out Florida for his signature. He’s also the guy on this list who plays the least.

That’s one part. But it’s more than just the roster.

In-Season Improvement

Kyle Smith can coach. I mean, he can really coach. And I think this is best represented by the way his teams improve as the season goes along.

Now, unlike Smith, I am most definitely not a coach. I don’t view things through a coach’s lens, so I can’t break down the finer points of strategy as it applies to Smith. But I know what my eyes show me, and in that regard, it’s plain to see how Smith’s teams get better, game after game, year after year.

I also think we can quantify this to some degree. One way is looking at the way his teams’ kenpom ratings tend to rise throughout the season. If it was really just about the projections misunderstanding the talent level, you’d expect the rating to go up, then level out at some point, and then just sort of stay there. But that’s not what usually happens — usually, the rating keeps steadily rising.

While barttorvik is not kenpom, their rating systems are similar, and Bart offers visuals to go with his numbers, while Ken does not. So, here’s what the rating progression looks like this year at Bart’s site (click on the image for the interactive version):

Another way to look at it is though Torvik’s “Game Score” metric. That’s where his site looks at an individual game, adjusts the efficiencies for opponent, then gives you a number that represents how good the team was on that night. For example, WSU posted a Game Score of 91 against Stanford, which corresponds with a rating of 0.9100 in his T-Rank system, meaning WSU played roughly like the 15th-ranked team in that game (BYU currently is 15th with a rating of 0.9102).

Again, the trend line goes in the right direction this year, as it does in most years, meaning the game-by-game performances get better and better5 (again, click on the image for the interactive version):

I think what’s most noteworthy about this is that Smith hasn’t just done it the same way every year. Because of the roster construction (read: recruiting) limitations at WSU, Smith has to get creative with assembling his talent. He takes a roster with different sorts of parts each year and figures out how to get the most out of it.

This year might be the ultimate example of that. Typically, Smith has played with one big and four perimeter players at WSU. But this year, the interior was clearly the strength, so he adapted out of the gate, devising a way for WSU to play most of its minutes with two bigs on the floor. And the results were excellent straight away, save for a neutral-site loss to Mississippi State.

But then things changed with Joseph Yesufu’s injury. Suddenly, the Cougs were super duper thin at guard — it was basically Rice and unheralded freshman Isaiah Watts. So Smith got even more creative, deciding to just be uber tall: He put 6-7 Wells in the starting lineup, joining 6-8 Jakimovski, 6-9 Jones, and 6-11 Cluff; 6-7 Houinsou, really a guard/wing hybrid, became the de facto second guard. Extremely unconventional!

It was a little rough early on. The offense struggled mightily for a stretch at the end of non-conference play and the beginning of Pac-12 play. Check out the dip in the five-game rolling average for offensive efficiency (the dashed line) … but also the recovery:

Jones figured a bunch of things out against the higher competition, Rice got comfortable, and Wells got healthy. The players make the plays. But the coach has a lot to do with putting the players in a position to succeed.

On defense, the Cougars had to learn how to try and stop teams without having traditional perimeter quickness. The result is that they are now an elite defensive squad: The Cougs are third in the Pac-12 in points per possession allowed in conference play, and they’ve risen all the way to 26th in kenpom’s adjusted defensive efficiency. The improvement hasn’t been quite as dramatic, but it’s still there:

If they finish 26th, it would be the third time in five years that Smith has put together a top 30 defense.

For real, sometimes I wonder if he’s some sort of wizard.

The Elephant In The Room

We’ve been longing for a winning basketball program, and yet, with each successive win, the Monkey’s Paw tightens.

Kyle Smith isn’t a better coach today than he was a year ago, or two years ago, but because this team is exceeding expectations on a level that puts them in the NCAA Tournament, he’s going to be the Pac-12 coach of the year and there’s a decent shot he’ll be the national coach of the year. But the attention he’s receiving right now increases the likelihood that he becomes the flavor of the month in April when a program is looking for a new coach; heck, I’m fully aware that even this piece that I’m writing to extoll his virtues could be used by his agent as even more ammunition to drum up interest for another job.

As hard a job as Washington State has always been, it’s not going to get easier with the two years of limbo we’re facing in the WCC. Smith coached in the WCC for three years before coming to Pullman; I’m going to go ahead and guess that he’s not super thrilled to be going back. Pat Chun will certainly cobble together a significant raise to put in front Smith, and it won’t be close to what another school can offer if they want him.

I don’t think Smith leaving is inevitable, but I also know it’s a real possibility.

And I’ve honestly just chosen not to worry about it.

One of my biggest regrets as a fan is feeling like I didn’t enjoy the 2007-08 season as much as I could have. Coming on the heels of a surprise tournament appearance and carrying the burden of unprecedented expectations, I was so concerned with what each game would do to our ranking or mean for our seeding that I forgot to enjoy myself to the maximum. When it was over, I told myself there would be more moments like that.

You know the rest of the story. A year later, Tony was gone without so much as a thank you or a goodbye, and we entered the long journey to the bottom that led us here.

This time around, I’m simply choosing to enjoy the ride, larger implications be damned. I won’t tell you how to be a fan; if you want to spend every week worrying about whether Kyle Smith is going to desert us the way Tony did, you can certainly do that. That won’t be me. These moments don’t come around often enough for us. If this is it, I will be fully marinating in it, soaking up every bit of fun that I can.

I hope you’re able to do the same.

Footnotes

1  His purpose for writing the piece was to explore whether WSU could get to the postseason, which they hadn’t done since Klay Thompson’s final season in 2011. In there, Craig wrote this:

WSU did indeed finish in the top half of the Pac-12 (tied for 5th at 11-9), improved to No. 54 in the kenpom rankings, and advanced to the NIT, where they made it to Madison Square Garden.

2 WSU was ranked 57 before that home loss to EWU in the NIT. You might recall they played without their best player, so I think going from 71 to 67 undersells the improvement last year.

3 Still my favorite thing I’ve ever written.

4 Joseph Yesufu — a transfer from Kansas — would also be here, but he hasn’t played since November, and won’t play again this year.

5 You might think to yourself, “aren’t these two graphs basically showing the same thing?” Yes. But sometimes showing similar things in two different ways help more people understand!

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