For the third time in a decade, Kyle Smith is taking on a basketball rebuilding project.
Smith, the coach at Washington State, previously turned around the programmes at Columbia and San Francisco. Now, in his new assignment with the Cougars, he’s trying to install a new culture at a school that has made the NCAA postseason tournament just six times since World War II.
Everyone in Pullman, Washington, has been friendly to Smith’s arrival, with one notable exception. When the coach recently tried to get a passport photo, he had an interesting interaction.
The clerk had been following the hiring process and teased Smith with one well-placed barb.
“‘I wish we could’ve hired [Rick] Pitino,’” said the clerk, referencing the Hall of Fame coach who led Kentucky to the 1996 national championship.
“‘Me too,’” replied Smith, taking the slight in stride. “‘You got me instead.’”
Washington State’s journey began Sunday, when Smith welcomed his players for the start of a six-week summer training session. And it will continue in November when Smith and Washington State come to Grand Cayman to take part in the third edition of the Cayman Islands Classic.
That tournament, on 25‑27 Nov., will take Washington State out of their comfort zone and across North America diagonally, and Smith said their travel day would consume the better part of 24 hours. The players will have to deal with jetlag and a tough slate of competitors, but Smith said it’s a great opportunity.
“We want to have something on our schedule every year where we reward our guys and have some fun,” he said of the Cayman Islands Classic. “When we land, we’ll give them a day to go have fun. See what you can do, wear yourselves out. Then we’ll get them on a schedule and get them in the gym.”
Smith took over the Cougars programme at the end of March, and he will have at least six new players to go with Washington State’s holdovers from the previous coaching staff. His leading returning scorer is CJ Elleby, a sophomore who averaged 14.7 points and seven rebounds during his freshman campaign.
Nobody else returning from last year’s team averaged more than eight points a game, and Smith will be weaving in a highly touted freshman in DJ Rodman, the son of NBA Hall-of-Famer Dennis Rodman.
“It’s going to be a challenge. But the guys have good attitudes and they’re willing to work hard,” said Smith. “I imagine you get better each time you take on a new programme.
“I think it’s about communicating your message. We have to respect the players and earn their trust. Sometimes, I think coaches make the mistake of saying, ‘It’s my way or the highway.’”
Washington State plays in the cutthroat Pac-12 conference, and it last made the NCAA’s postseason tournament in 2007 and 2008. Smith, interestingly, has never taken a team to participate in March Madness, but he has a track record of transforming teams and making them competitive.
Smith spent six seasons at Columbia, and his 101 victories were the most for Columbia in any six-year span since the Lions posted 107 wins from 1965 to 1971. He also achieved three straight 20-win seasons for San Francisco, marking the first time the programme had done that in more than 30 years.
Smith said he would take instruction from the last successful Washington State team. Tony Bennett, who just won a national championship with Virginia, posted a 69-33 record in three years at Washington State and brought the Cougars to the NCAA tournament twice in 2007 and 2008.
“We’re looking at the big picture of how Tony Bennett was successful here,” said Smith. “He put a programme in place and he wasn’t consumed with attracting four-and-five-star recruits.”
Smith has an incoming transfer from a Division I school, and he’s also hit the junior college ranks to flesh out his roster. He has a freshman from Australia and another from the Ukraine, but the most prominent newcomer will likely be Rodman, who starred in a really tough California high school league.
There will be no pressure to play immediately for Smith’s freshman; he wants them to concentrate on adjusting both academically and socially before he feeds them major minutes on the floor.
“DJ … is a good worker and a good student,” said Smith. “He’s produced and he’s been successful, and he’s excited about coming here and trying to start something new.”
Smith’s San Francisco squad beat two Pac-12 teams – California and Stanford – last season, and he said the field in the Cayman Islands Classic will be a great test for his team. When asked about one potential opponent, New Mexico State, Smith said they’d match up well with anyone in his conference.
“They’d do just fine in the Pac-12,” said Smith. “They’re in the tournament every year.”