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

UPDATED: Sat., March 28, 2020

PULLMAN – Before the season started, Kyle Smith and the data-infatuated assistants on his Washington State coaching staff tried to handicap where the Cougars would land on Ken Pomeroy’s rankings map when 2019-20 campaign finished.

Pomeroy’s system uses variables such as “adjusted offense,” “adjusted defense” and even “luck rating” to spit out rankings for each of the 353 teams that compete in NCAA Division I men’s basketball. His website, KenPom.com, is visited thousands of times every day by college hoops junkies across the country, and the WSU coaches account for a healthy portion of the clicks.

One of the assistants, who Smith wouldn’t name but said hadn’t been with him at either of his previous stops – San Francisco or Columbia – estimated the Cougars at No. 150. Smith immediately turned to another coach, analytics assistant John Andrzejek, who’s been immersed in the coach’s “Nerdball” strategy since 2012-13, when he served as Columbia’s team manager, gradually moving into a director of operations position.

On the same page, Smith and Andrzejek shot a bit higher.

“John and I looked at each other and said, ‘100,’ ” Smith said. “I said, ‘I’ll be honest with you, man, I think top 100 is doable.’ ”

WSU’s actual KenPom finish was somewhere right in the middle of the guesses. The Cougars, who had a record of 16-16, settled for No. 127. It signified the second-lowest ranking by a Pac-12 team on the KenPom chart, higher than only No. 153 Cal, but still showed measurable improvement from where the Cougars finished a year earlier – 80 places lower at No. 207. They also logged six wins over teams ranked higher, including a sweep of No. 54 Washington and an 82-68 rout of No. 35 Colorado in the Pac-12 Tournament.

“Being realistic, to go from 205 to 100, that’s just a huge jump,” Smith said. “But I felt good about our guys. I think for us, how many minutes do you return? That’s going to be always important and try to always get old and stay old when you’re going into a year when you don’t have a ton of minutes, it gets tricky.”

It’s difficult for Smith to take inventory of what he has, and what he doesn’t, at such an uncertain time in college basketball. On Monday, the NCAA will vote on whether student-athletes who had their seasons shortened by coronavirus should earn another year of eligibility. Many think exceptions will be made for spring athletes, but in the unlikely case it also includes those participating in winter sports, the makeup of Smith’s 2020-21 roster could change, potentially prolonging the careers of seniors Jeff Pollard and Jervae Robinson.

“I kind of started thinking to myself and telling people, ‘I wish I could get three or four years under coach Smith and just see how much I could grow and what we could do if I had a few more years in the system and kind of got used to everything,’ ” Pollard told The Spokesman-Review last week. “I definitely would consider it. I’m not very hopeful they’re going to do it for basketball.”

In the next month or two, the Cougars would normally hold a lighter four-week spring basketball program, which allows them four hours per week on the court and eight more for strength and conditioning. It’s an essential and probably underlooked segment of the college basketball calendar that offers coaches an early glimpse of their restructured roster and gives them a chance to identify new leaders before shipping their players home for the summer.

“It usually is a good little transition period to get ready for the next year,” Smith said. “Seniors are out of the way in a sense, leadership changes a little bit. You can see which guys are hungry to get better.”

As of last week, Smith said none of the returning players on WSU’s roster had approached him about transferring. By Monday evening, he’ll know whether Pollard and/or Robinson could be in the picture next season. All-Pac-12 first-teamer CJ Elleby will make a decision to return for his junior season, which would cement WSU’s 2020-21 roster, or try his hand in the NBA, which would vacate one more scholarship for Smith and his staff.

More than two weeks after WSU’s season abruptly ended in Las Vegas, Elleby still hasn’t officially announced he’d be testing NBA draft waters, but the sophomore forward is expected to do so again after averaging 18.4 points and 7.4 rebounds. The chances of him leaving should be higher than they were last year, after Elleby improved in just about every statistical category and made remarkable strides on the defensive end – something he was encouraged to do while working out for NBA teams a year ago.

“I’ve told him, I support him 100 percent,” Smith said. “… I didn’t recruit him, but he’s been awesome. Obviously as far as coaching, there’s room for our relationship to grow and him to get better, and I would love to have the opportunity to coach him another year.”

If Elleby broaches the topic with Smith, the WSU coach said he’ll offer sound advice.

“He’s a college guy, he’s a good teammate,” Smith said. “Everyone loves him, being around him. He’s only 19, he’s enjoying the college ride and we talked about it. It’s a no-brainer if there’s a guarantee. That’s just, you do that. … If you’re a first-rounder, guaranteed money, hey, we’ll all celebrate that. That’s over my pay grade.”

But Smith could always point to another WSU player who opted to stay for his junior season, then went on to mounds of money, success and fame in the NBA.

“That’s my agenda, but I did notice, Klay (Thompson) stayed three, huh?” Smith said. “I mentioned that a few times, just jokingly. And I just think, we’d have a chance to be good next year if he stayed. I think we’ll be good either way.”

The first-year coach believes he unlocked something, so to speak, late in the season when the Cougars were able to keep 7-footer Volodymyr Markovetskyy on the floor for extended stretches, allowing Smith to deploy Pollard or Tony Miller at the “four” rather than the “five” and Elleby at the “three” instead of the “four” – more natural positions for all three players.

“All league, our plus/minus was going the right way with Vova (Markovetskyy) in there,” Smith said. “I just didn’t have confidence, just wasn’t playing him enough. At UCLA, I screamed at him in the locker room and I was really screaming at myself because he got in there the first half and he gave up like three baskets, but they were all counter moves to (Cody) Riley.”

Markovetskyy instilled more confidence in Smith late in the season, and his usage skyrocketed in the final three games. The freshman center logged his season high in minutes, and equaled or topped his season high in points in two of those three, including a double-double of 11 points and 10 rebounds in the regular season finale at Arizona State.

“Obviously, we could’ve played one more game – every game we played at that point was really going to help us moving into next year,” Smith said. “Every minute Vova could get would help us, help him and even if we didn’t go to the NCAA Tournament we were going to play in the CBI and that would hopefully extend it another week, two weeks.”

Even if Pollard isn’t in the fold, the senior forward will be sure to monitor the program he helped reboot.

“Not only are they extremely talented,” he said, “but the thing I think is going to carry them the furthest is the work ethic, and like I was talking about before, that fighting spirit that every guy has.”

Pollard also thinks the Cougars will elevate when Smith and his staff begin to make better headway on the recruiting trail – something that can take a year or two to develop for new coaches. Next year’s team will include Efe Abogidi, a 6-10 Nigerian center who played at the NBA Global Academy in Australia, and T.J. Bamba, a 6-5 combo guard from Denver. The Cougars also have a commitment from electric Canadian small forward Jefferson Koulibaly, who’s expected to reclassify into the class of 2020.

“They can do a lot with guys that aren’t talented,” Pollard said, “so I’m kind of excited to see what they can do when they finally get some of that high-level talent and see what that translates into.”

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