PULLMAN, WA - The WSU Men's Basketball program has been an afterthought ever since the beloved Tony Bennett was allowed to take his talents to Virginia, (who have since won a National Championship). Since then, WSU has had two coaches come and go. Ken Bone took over after Bennett, and he had some talent left over from Tony's teams, but was unable to keep building on the positive trajectory that coach Bennett had left in his wake. Ken Bone was fired after going 10-21 in his final season, and 3-15 in conference play. Former WSU athletic director Bill Moos then brought in Ernie Kent to take over. Many thought it was a smart hire at the time due to the success Ernie had at Oregon. He was a fantastic recruiter, bringing in the likes of Luke Ridnour, and Aaron Brooks; and helped lead Oregon to a pair of Elite 8 finishes in 2002 and 2007. Kent also brought with him an exciting brand of fast-paced basketball, or so we thought, and promised that Cougar basketball would be all about "running and gunning." What transpired was quite the opposite. WSU's basketball talent and attendance both reached depths that were once thought impossible. Kent racked up 98 losses and a paltry .372 winning percentage across five seasons. That included a 22-68 record in Pac-12 play, despite coaching in the weakest iteration of the conference in at least two decades. His teams finished 9th, 12th, 10th, 11th and 11th, and they also produced zero Pac-12 Tournament victories. Kent was mercifully let go by new AD Pat Chun earlier this year. Chun acted quickly and brought in new HC Kyle Smith. Smith had the odds stacked against him, as he was late to the party as far as recruiting was concerned; so he and his coaches got to work, quickly assembling a team that fit Smith's coaching style which leans heavily on analytics... so here we are, six days away from the start of another Cougar Basketball campaign. What should we expect this year? Let's take a look:
The Analytics Era has Arrived in Pullman:
We've all heard the phrase "work smarter, not harder", and while we'd hope the Cougs work hard on the court, new head coach Kyle Smith is bringing mathematics and statistics into the game of basketball at WSU. I recently watched the movie Moneyball starring Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill; for those who haven't seen it, the movie centers around the Oakland A's Baseball Franchise, and how General Manager Billy Beane had to reconstruct the A's roster after opposing teams stole away the A's best players. The catch is, the A's have one of, if not the lowest payroll in the major leagues, making it that much more difficult for the A's to lure the league's best players to the team. So, what did Billy Beane do? He turned to advanced analytics:
Beane and DePodesta (Jonah Hill's character), set about mining decades of data on hundreds of individual players in order to figure out the best strategy for recruiting good players. Their analysis revealed that baseball scouts were overlooking statistics that could accurately predict how many runs a player would score. In short, scouts were clueless when it came to accurately valuing talent. Drawing from these conclusions, Beane realized that players who scored high on these overlooked statistics were probably undervalued by the bidding market. He began seeking out these “bargain” players, or players who were flying under the radar of other teams but whose statistics suggested that they would score runs.
You may be wondering what the movie MoneyBall has to do with the state of WSU Basketball; well let's compare the two teams: The Oakland A's don't have the money to throw around that some of the other clubhouses have, so they have to be smart with who they target, and go after the undervalued players. Similarily, Washington State has never been high on the top recruit's collective radar. Klay Thompson was the one exception. Kyle Smith has the same challenge that Billy Beane faces. He needs to go out and find the players that fit his system, and are under the radar from some of the bigger programs. Does this mean he shouldn't ever take a shot at some of the highly valued recruits? Of course not, but let's be realistic, Pullman Washington may not be a big draw to someone who's used to living in an urban enviroment... just a hunch.
What can we expect this season?
This is the first time in years I find myself genuinely excited about the state of WSU basketball. Pat Chun went out and made a SMART hire, not a hire that he thought was big and flashy, a hire that could ultimately pay off years down the road. The future is in great hands under new HC Kyle Smith, but let's make no mistake, it may take a year or two before we see obvious results in the win column, the important thing to remember is we have HOPE.
The new coaching staff has made it clear that one of their main goals is to improve on the defensive side of the ball.
“One area we’re really trying to get better is on the defensive side,” Andrzejek told Cougfan.com in a recent interview. “Last season, if you look on KenPom, Washington State was 284th in defensive efficiency, and that’s an area that we’ve really highlighted as something we have to get better at and quickly," he says. "There’s been a lot of research that says maybe coaches can have more influence on defense than on offense and hopefully we can just change some habits and our style of play on that side of the ball.”
He noted that the Cougars last season also were 330th in effective field goal percentage defense, which means opponents were getting up good shots. Andrzejek also told Cougfan.com, that if they were able to get into the top 100 on defense, that would put a hige smile on the coaches faces.
Still, despite the clearly defined direction, and talented recruits that were brought in, WSU was still picked to finish 11th out of 12th in the Pac-12. I tend to think the Coug's may surprise some people, but I'm trying to keep my expectations low so I don't end up disappointed like in years past. Were the Cougs able to finish with around a .500 record, that'd be a MAJOR win in my book.
WSU tips off their season against Seattle U. in Pullman, November 7th.