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Kyle Smith has experience filling arenas, but Washington State coach faces daunting change in Pullman

UPDATED: Tue., Nov. 19, 2019

Washington State men’s basketball coach Kyle Smith addresses his team after a practice in Pullman earlier this season. (WSU Athletics/Courtesy)
Washington State men’s basketball coach Kyle Smith addresses his team after a practice in Pullman earlier this season. (WSU Athletics/Courtesy)

PULLMAN – In 2009-10, the year before Kyle Smith was tabbed to take over the basketball program at Columbia, the Ivy League Lions were drawing an average of just 1,245 fans to home games at puny Levien Gynasium.

Over the next six years, Smith lifted Columbia on the court and his playing style – or, the wins it elicited – also helped the Lions make noticeable strides in the bleachers.

In Smith’s first season with the Lions, attendance rose from 1,245 to 1,317. It went from 1,317 to 1,431 in his second year and from 1,431 to 1,597 in his third. Attendance plateaued there, never exceeding 1,600, but it also never dipped below 1,500.

Smith rejuvenated another fanbase when he moved to coach the University of San Francisco. The Dons were drawing 1,524 fans the year before he arrived, but attendance spiked to 1,901 in his first season. Numbers dropped slightly to 1,719 in his second season, but there was another big move in his final season when USF lured 2,100 fans to War Memorial Gym.

Smith’s seen attendance numbers increase in seven of his nine seasons as a head coach. Even his worst seasons at Columbia and USF still drew better numbers than the year before he began at either place.

Suffice it to say, Washington State’s first-year coach is used to scarce crowds in small arenas.

“I’ve been there. I’ve been at the base level before,” Smith said. “At Columbia, there weren’t a lot of fans there when we showed up. San Francisco, people had gone away and they started coming back.”

But he’s still adjusting to scarce crowds in an arena that dwarfs both of the sub-3,000 capacity venues he coached at prior to joining the Cougars.

WSU’s 2018-19 basketball season produced the lowest attendance in 17 years. While Smith doesn’t have much of a sample size in 2019-20 after just two home games, against Seattle U and Idaho State, he can already make one assertion about the gym he’ll be coaching in 14 more times this season.

“I think it’s probably too big, the arena,” Smith said of Beasley Coliseum, which holds 11,671 fans. “Just the population that lives here and students. I think it’s a great environment when people show up.”

The Cougars (2-1) continue nonconference play at 4 p.m. Thursday against Omaha (2-2). Pac-12 Networks will stream the action at Beasley Coliseum.

If Smith can revive WSU the same way he did at Columbia and USF, he’ll see similar inflation in the attendance column. In cavernous Beasley Coliseum, reaching one-fourth of the building’s capacity would signify an improvement from last season, when the Cougars brought in 2,318 fans – the lowest figure in the Pac-12 and the only one under 3,000.

But WSU’s home venue has the sixth-highest capacity in the conference behind Utah, Arizona, UCLA, Oregon and Cal.

Filling up even half of Beasley Coliseum would mean drawing 5,835 fans on average – something the Cougars have done in four seasons since 2000. Tony Bennett’s teams drew 7,177 (2007), 8,231 (2008) and 8,018 (2009), while Ken Bone’s first two teams pulled in 7,323 (2010) and 7,143 (2011).

The Ernie Kent era hit its peak in its first season, with average attendance at 3,190, but it fell below 3,000 in three of the next four years and bottomed out in 2018-19.

Fans haven’t seen enough of the Smith era to show up in droves. The Cougars have hosted Seattle and Idaho State, teams that respectively rank just 193rd and 319th in Ken Pomeroy’s rankings.

“I don’t know, we’ve got to do our part, we’ve got to be competitive, we’ve got to win,” Smith said. “But I think if you get to know this team, you’ll like them, their personalities, their attitude.

“… We’ve got to do our part, that always helps. I’m not going to blame marketing if we’re not doing our job winning, but they’ve got a tough task because it’s a tough arena.”

Shead’s status uncertain

Point guard Jaylen Shead took a hard spill late in Sunday’s win over Idaho State and didn’t return to the court after being helped off with a rolled ankle.

Smith indicated the Cougars’ floor general is questionable for Thursday’s game against Omaha, but Shead would travel with the team Friday for the Cayman Islands Classic, suggesting he might be available during the three-game tournament in the Caribbean.

“He’s definitely traveling. We’ll know more today,” Smith said. “And he did a great job defensively last game. Really knocked out their leading scorer and we need him. But if not, we’ll have Noah (Williams), he’ll have to step up a little bit, and Isaac (Bonton) and Ryan Rapp, he’s been out 11 weeks. So he’s had like two practices, but with our ball-handling he handles the majority of the load.”

Shead’s started in all three games for the Cougars, averaging 24 minutes and 6.3 points. The Texas State graduate transfer is second on the team in total steals (seven) and assists (six).

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