PULLMAN – The first 60 minutes of Washington State basketball practices may not be particularly compelling – either for those partaking or those dropping by to get a glimpse – but they’re a fundamental part of what first-year coach Kyle Smith is trying to build in Pullman.
“First hour of practice, we’re doing straight defense,” sophomore forward CJ Elleby said recently. “We’re working on our principles, where we need to be in rotations, how we can help the helper and really how we’re going to guard situation plays. Ball screens, down screens, back screens. Really just trying to learn, and he’s teaching us the ways in which we’re going to play defense.”
For years, fans bemoaned the defensive deficiencies the Cougars displayed under former coach Ernie Kent.
In Kent’s five seasons, WSU never ranked higher than 10th in the Pac-12 in scoring defense. The Cougars finished last three times, including each of the last two seasons. Their adjusted defensive efficiency – a reliable tool used by Ken Pomeroy that measures the points a team allows per 100 possessions – has ranked lower than 200th four of the last five years and was especially poor in 2018-19, when WSU’s rating of 110.2 was second lowest among Power Six teams.
It’s no wonder Smith has spent the first eight months on the job beating defensive principles into his players’ heads, to the point they’ll be thinking about defense when they eat breakfast, walk to class and close their eyes at night.
“Right now, defensively, we’re just trying to keep the ball in front of us, just in terms of stopping the ball,” said forward Deion James, a graduate transfer from Colorado State. “Just having help-side rotation and rotating pretty good. And just having everybody’s back and not quitting when things break down. So, that’s our biggest emphasis.”
How far this team has come since Smith was introduced as the school’s 19th coach will be on display when WSU opens the season Thursday at 6 p.m.
When they tip off against Seattle U, the Cougars will not only be debuting a new head coach, but 12 new players, a newly furnished court and, they hope, a new commitment to defensive basketball.
“They keep growing as a unit. They’ve been really accepting what we’re trying to do and you never know what pushback you’re going to get,” Smith said. “You’re always going to get a little bit, guys fighting, certain things. Because I think our accountability on the court is what separates it a little bit. … There’s going to be ebbs and flows, but really happy with our group.”
Smith, whose style of coaching was dubbed “Nerdball” at the University of San Francisco, will rely heavily on analytics to track just about everything the Cougars are doing on the court – and which Cougars are worthy of spending more time on the court than others.
The numbers have already been helpful.
One metric Smith uses to determine defensive productivity is hustle-to-defense ratio. Players who dive for loose balls, cause deflections and close out on shots usually grade out well, but the opposite can be said for players that don’t contest shots, lag on rotations or allow too many players to blow by.
“So, when you’re having more errors than you are positive plays, we’ve got work to do,” Smith said.
The first few months weren’t pretty, but the last few have yielded better results.
“I can compare over the summer and you only get four hours a week. But we wanted to get them educated on what they’re doing,” Smith said. “And it sounds silly, but their defense, their hustle-to-defense ratios, they were underwater. And now we’re getting guys that are on level and some guys are positive.”
Elleby, who was recently named to the Wooden Award watch list, figures to be the go-to scorer and rebounder for Smith after pulling his name out of the NBA draft and electing to return for his sophomore season.
“If I want to play at the next level, then I’ve got to work hard every day,” Elleby said. “… Really buckling down on what I need to work on. My defense and really just hustling every play and taking no plays off.”
Smith is optimistic about WSU’s prospects at point guard. There’s a few options there and the Cougars could shuffle between two transfers: Jaylen Shead, who led Texas State to 24 wins last season, and the more dynamic Isaac Bonton, who began his career at Montana State and averaged 21.4 points in junior college last season.
“I would say Jaylen and Isaac, we’ve got two really good point guards that bring a little different set of skills,” Smith said. “And I think even (freshman) Noah Williams gives you a dynamic big. He plays all three perimeter spots and he can really impact a game defensively. But I think right now with Jaylen’s experience and running a team and passing, he’s really good. Then Isaac’s dynamic.
“I like to have a point guard that can really score, puts a lot of pressure on the defense. So we can work both of those guys together and I think we’re going to have a really good combination.”