PULLMAN – Kyle Smith, whose introductory news conference as the Washington State men’s basketball coach was Monday, seemingly is ahead of the game.
Smith has held workouts since being hired last week and is working to keep veteran players from leaving.
“All hands on deck,” the 49-year-old Smith said. “Let’s get better here.”
The Cougars haven’t had a winning season since the 2011-12 campaign, and coach Ernie Kent was fired last month after going 58-98 over the past five seasons.
Smith comes to WSU after a successful three-year run at San Francisco, where he went 63-40 and became the first coach in program history to win at least 20 games in each of his first three seasons. Before landing the job at USF of the West Coast Conference, Smith went 102-81 in six seasons at Columbia.
“First few practices, I’m not going to lie to you, were hard,” WSU sophomore forward Marvin Cannon said. “You can tell he’s really into defense, so he’s just been pushing us with defense, rebounds and toughness.”
Teammate Jervae Robinson, a senior point guard, gave a similar account.
“Hard work. Tough. Defense. Just getting after it, really,” Robinson said. “He’s been pushing us and that’s helped us push each other, and we’re just getting better.”
Smith has reached out to forward CJ Elleby, one of the team’s top players, who has declared for the NBA draft, and forward Jeff Pollard, who is seeking a transfer.
Elleby has been at the workouts, Smith said.
As for Pollard, Smith said, “You are welcome here, brother. You are a Coug.”
Smith, who has a six-year contract worth $1.4 million annually, did not promise an immediate fix to the program.
“There will be some rough patches,” he said.
Smith is known for his extensive use of analytics.
“We stat everything we do,” he said. “It makes you hard to beat.”
Smith intends to eventually break down more than 50 statistical categories with each of his players, but he was concerned with one or two numbers Monday.
“We’ve got to make a 20 percent improvement this year, whatever it is,” he said.
Smith hinted at WSU’s defensive ineptitude under the last regime, noting the Cougars ranked 291st nationally.
“We don’t need to go much deeper than that, but that’s such an egregious (number),” he said. “We have to get better, just to get in the conversation.”
Smith said he is excited to be part of the Pac-12 and named some of the better coaches among the 18 who preceded him in Pullman, including George Raveling, Kelvin Sampson and Tony Bennett.
“I am humbled and honored to have a chance,” Smith said.
Smith has shared his vision with the eight players he has inherited — and sold it to athletic director Pat Chun when the two spoke on the phone for the first time a few weeks ago.
Smith graded out quite well at the news conference before about 100 school officials, media members and fans at the Rankich Club Room inside Martin Stadium.
“A lot of people say Disneyland is the happiest place on Earth,” Smith told the gathering. “Let me tell you, Pullman is the friendliest place on Earth.”
Chun didn’t offer much detail about the school’s search process, but it’s clear Smith was in the mix early.
For at least one day, Smith’s enthusiasm and willingness to take on what is considered one of college basketball’s most challenging gigs seemed to set everyone at ease.
“In our first phone call, Kyle Smith made it clear to me he was going to be our next head coach,” Chun said, “and he was actually going to take over the job before we got off the phone.”