Washington State Basketball Player Kyle Smith Uses Moneyball Approach
The 1,700-acre Washington State campus sits in the midst of the Eastern Washington Hills, surrounded by wheat fields on either side. Pullman Airport is served by a single airline and serves only Seattle.
Wazzu junior guard Noah Williams confirms what seems obvious based only on a quick Google Earth search: “There is literally nothing to do in Pullman.”
With the exception of two magical years under Tony Bennett, the men’s basketball program rarely made winters exciting in the rural college town. Washington State has only competed in the NCAA Men’s Tournament six times in the program’s history, most recently in 2008. In the KenPom era (since 1997), WSU finished lower than 200th on the analysis site as many times (three) that it has finished in the top 50. Prior to the arrival of coach Kyle Smith from San Francisco in 2019, the program had not finished in the top half of over 350 KenPom team rankings nationally over the past six years, by far the longest streak among high performance teams.
Additionally, Washington state has the smallest men’s basketball budget among “Power 6” teams (Power 5 plus Big East), according to a 2020 Three Man Weave analysis. The season before Smith came to Pullman, Wazzu averaged less than 2,500 fans per game, by far the lowest among the “Power 6”.
All this to say that Washington State is not Assumed be good at men’s basketball. It is widely regarded by many in the industry as the toughest job in the country. And while the Cougars are still a long way from where Smith hopes they will someday be, it’s hard not to salute the improvement in a relatively short period of time. In Year 1 under the 52-year-old, WSU jumped 80 spots in KenPom and won five more games than the previous season, finishing .500 for the first time in seven years. And despite star wing CJ Elleby’s early departure, now a Portland Trail Blazer, the Cougars jumped another 49 spots in 2020-21, to rank 78th. It was Wazzu’s best KenPom result in a decade.
Now, the Cougars are entering 2021-2022 with something relatively foreign to the program: expectations. A young core made up of Williams, Nigerian great man Efe Abogidi and talented young forward Dishon Jackson return, and a touted group of newcomers starring four-star rookie Mouhamed Gueye and top transfer goalkeeper Michael Flowers come back. join the fray. The WSU roster is in better shape after two years with Smith than anyone might have expected – even Smith says they have “overtaken [their] coverage ”in recruiting. How? ‘Or’ What? Everything is linked to a Silver ballstyle approach refined through reconstructions he designed across the country.
Kyle Smith has never met Michael Lewis, but he “is dying” and wants to send him a message: “I built my career on Silver ball. “
Silver ball, a non-fiction book written by Lewis in 2003, explained how the Oakland Athletics front office found dumped baseball players using analytics to overcome a small payroll. The book, later made into a film in 2011, opened the eyes of the sports world to the power of analysis.
Around the same time the As’s started making waves with their analytical approach, another team in the San Francisco Bay Area was starting to employ similar strategies. Smith had headed to Saint Mary’s College in Moraga, Calif., As Randy Bennett’s assistant. When Smith and Bennett arrived in 2001, Saint Mary’s had just finished a 2–27 season and sat in the same conference as Gonzaga, who were becoming a perennial Top 25 team.
Before Silver ball brought analytical ideas into the mainstream of sports, Smith wasn’t sure exactly how to describe what he was doing to try and give Saint Mary’s an edge. He just knew he had to recruit players who didn’t always look like a top varsity basketball player.
No player has perhaps exemplified it better than Omar Samhan, whom Smith successfully recruited from the Gaels. Samhan was 6’11 “but weighed 315 pounds and had lean legs.
“He looked like Fred Flintstone,” Smith jokes.
While Samhan’s build might have scared off larger programs, Smith and Saint Mary’s saw him for his skill level. The great man delivered, amassing more than 1,800 points and 1,100 rebounds during his rich career. Saint Mary’s has also taken off in Samhan’s four years at Moraga, reaching Sweet 16 in his senior season and winning 25 or more games in each of his past three seasons.
Searching for stars under the radar became a habit for Smith when he got the chance to lead his first show, taking over in 2010 at Columbia. This meant recruiting all over the world, from New York to California to Canada and even Germany. It was also there that he met John Andrzejek, who helped bring Smith Silver ball-as approach to the next level.
Andrzejek, who Smith calls “a human cheat code,” began developing a recruiting algorithm when he was on staff at Columbia trying to project how well a player will be in college based on statistics from the team. high school, grassroots and international. The algorithm was ultimately tweaked and perfected by a professor at the University of San Francisco when Smith and Andrzejek were working on it (Andrzejek remains an assistant to Smith at Pullman).
One player the algorithm helped uncover was Jamaree Bouyea, who Smith recruited as the Dons head coach. Bouyea was ready to enlist in the Fresno Pacific Division II before Smith and the staff decided to offer it. Last season, he averaged 17 points and nearly four assists per game as a senior in San Francisco and earned the NBA appearance.
And while WSU assistant Derrick Phelps, who has also coached with Smith at Columbia and USF, concedes that recruiting under-the-radar players like Bouyea isn’t an exact science, he believes the he analytical recruiting approach gives Smith’s teams an edge.
“I think we have a higher percentage of good shots with these type of kids,” says Phelps.
The three head coaching positions Smith has encountered have involved significant hurdles in recruiting. Columbia needed a holistic approach and academic hurdles to find guys that fit an Ivy League school. In San Francisco, being in the same league as Gonzaga has made the talent requirement to compete for league titles much higher than is reasonably possible in a place like USF. And beyond budget limitations and historic lack of success, the Washington state location makes it incredibly difficult for interested recruits to even visit campus.
“If the [official] the tours lasted 10 days, we got every [recruit]. They love to be here, ”says Smith. “Unfortunately, they are 48 hours, and [it takes] 12 hours to get here from some places. They come here and they are already staggering like, “Where am I?” And I’m like, ‘You are in the middle of the wheat fields, my brother.’ “
These challenges required a unique approach.
“This is how we make a living, the Silver ball thing, ”says Smith. “Even at this level, we recruit guys who don’t get as many offers, which is amazing.”
A look at the young core of this WSU list shows many success stories. Williams, the No.305 player in his class, committed to Buffalo until a change of coach, then landed in Washington state shortly after Smith took the job. He has since become one of the Pac-12’s best players.
Abogidi is from Nigeria and suffered a knee injury that nearly ended his high school career. Jackson was a three-star rookie who signed late in the period after interest waned later in his high school career. The 2021-2022 roster includes players from Australia, North Macedonia, Nigeria, Senegal, Canada and the Dominican Republic, as well as New York and Georgia. No stone has been overlooked to find talent.
But the growth of the program under Smith wasn’t just driven by numbers from a spreadsheet. Phelps says the turmoil stats which are a fundamental tenet of Smith’s philosophy on the pitch aren’t too different from how Dean Smith, for whom Phelps played in North Carolina, approached the game. And anyone you talk to about the WSU program will quickly mention the four pillars of Kyle Smith’s programs: Faith, Family, Team, and Academics. The analyzes do not define Washington state under Smith; they’re just giving his team an edge to help close the gap.
“I am definitely a sociable person,” says Smith. “We’re going down to the Snake River today to end our summer; we are going to have fun in the water and have a barbecue. Those pieces are as important as any two-point field goal percentage or whatever. “
When he was Columbia’s head coach, Smith liked to ask a simple question of rookies and their parents:
“Do you think you can play in the NBA? “
There was only one correct answer in Smith’s eyes: yes. If a player or his parents said no or refused to talk about an Ivy League education, Smith mentally eliminated them.
“I’ll always ask, ‘How many people thought Jeremy Lin was a pro? And they will say, ‘None.’ Wrong. A. Jeremy Lin did it, ”Smith says.
Kyle Smith may have been the only person who believed he could transform Washington state men’s basketball when he took over. In two years with Pullman, he converted many believers. And with a roster that now has the knack to take on the best of the Pac-12, Year 3 for Smith could remove any doubt that Silver ball can work at the highest level of college basketball.
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