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What’s happening: A three-part series on the abrupt end to Washington State’s basketball season

UPDATED: Fri., March 27, 2020

Kyle Smith may not be instructing young adults on the anatomy of pick-and-roll defense now, but it doesn’t mean the first-year Washington State basketball coach is fully escaping teacher mode in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.

He’s still educating young minds, but the methods and messages are different. He’s still correcting mistakes, but there’s much less barking. He’s still parsing through film, only the material is foreign to him.

“We’ve got video, of course. We’ve got a little National Geographic stuff, we’ve got to watch a half hour,” Smith said last week. “We’re trying to mix it up.”

For now, Smith isn’t focused on coaching an 18-year-old named CJ, a 19-year-old named Noah or a 21-year-old named Isaac, simply because his hands are full tutoring a 6-year-old named Luke, a 9-year-old named Bo and an 11-year-old named Rocco.

“I’m a teacher. I’ve got three kids at home, it’s homeschooling,” Smith said. “I’ve got a lot more respect for people that are trying to do that every day, so it’s a big undertaking just trying to keep these guys busy and trying to keep them on a routine.”

Smith’s wife, Katie, is grateful for the assist.

“Oh yeah, she was just yelling at me for not doing something,” Smith said in a phone interview last week. “So, yes, definitely. We need all hands on deck, for sure.”

While Smith is drowning in the daily obligations of a high-major Division I basketball coach – holed up in his office reviewing film, traveling the country to identify the next wave of Cougars or devising a game plan for his current team – Katie is usually overextended at home.

She has two hands but could use six, especially because handling the couple’s middle son, Bo, is often a challenge of its own. Bo is on the autism spectrum and, as documented in a recent story by The Athletic, “Bo requires so much of (Kyle’s) and Katie’s bandwidth that it can be hard, if not almost impossible, to give equal attention to Rocco and Luke.”

For now, Katie and Kyle will compromise. They have four hands to manage their three children, with the WSU coach at home for the foreseeable future. Last week, Katie gave her husband some relief, taking the kids on a hike so he could conduct a few interviews about his basketball team. Once those finished, and the kids returned home, Kyle reverted back to his new title: stay-at-home dad.

“We’re doing, we call it the ‘Corona Homeschooling System,’ ” Kyle said.

At times, Kyle has fused his two roles. A video posted by WSU’s men’s basketball Twitter account shows Smith guiding Rocco through a ball-handling drill on a Cougar-themed sport court in the family’s backyard.

“This is coach Smith, your men’s basketball coach, broadcasting live from the Corona Homeschooling Project, Smith branch,” he said. “We’ve got a couple tips for you today to get better while you are home. My demonstrator is one Rocco Smith.”

Kyle instructs Rocco to perform 50 “ball slaps,” advising the Twitter audience to focus on squeezing and gripping the ball each time to “get your fingertips strong.” In the video, Rocco is told to circle the ball around his right leg, then his left leg and eventually in a figure-eight pattern. He does so first without a dribble, then bounces the ball while snaking it through his legs, reversing direction midway through the drill.

“All right, nice Roc,” Kyle said. “Hopefully, you can practice these drills, do a good job. Remember to be safe, practice social distancing. Go Cougs.”

Smith and his 352 coaching peers across the Division I level have all been inhibited by the coronavirus outbreak, but in some ways, its ramifications have been somewhat advantageous to the Cougars. The NCAA recently enacted an indefinite recruiting dead period, meaning schools can’t host prospects on official or unofficial visits. Phone calls, text messages and social media communication are still fair game.

WSU coaches, across all sports, are often hamstrung when it comes to recruiting because of the time it takes to travel to and from Pullman. Flying out of Moscow-Pullman Regional Airport normally requires a connecting flight to Seattle both ways. Spokane International Airport offers a handful of options, but the time cut out by flying directly is negated by the three additional hours spent in a car driving to and from the airport.

“I think this place, you definitely have to recruit deeper, more breadth, broader,” Smith said. “So I think we’ve got some pretty good relationships, we’ve got some things that are going. Because what hurts us is the time spent in the air when we go see people. So now we’re kind of on a level playing field. We still have our same hurdles to jump, but this is just straight evaluations and relationships. See what shakes out.”

Last week, Smith was preparing to review the 2019-20 season with each of the players on his current roster. The exit interviews normally occur in person, but Smith will conduct this round over FaceTime or Skype. He believes that could also work in WSU’s favor. Smith’s “Nerdball” strategy is largely centered around finding ways to use data and technology effectively.

“We’re kind of data-driven anyway, so we’ll meet with them,” Smith said. “We’ve got numbers, we’ll crank out some numbers. … Just review the year and try to plot a course.”

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