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WSU basketball *still* needs a ‘system’ coach

Let’s not triple down on a conventional hire. It’s time for the Cougars to get weird again.

NCAA Basketball: Prairie View A&M at Texas A&M
You almost certainly have never heard of Byron Smith. But if you want to get weird ...
John Glaser-USA TODAY Sports

When the Washington State Cougars were in this same position five years ago, I implored then-athletics director Bill Moos to pursue a “system coach” to replace Ken Bone. Obviously, he didn’t listen, doubling down on his predecessor by hiring an even higher-priced conventional coach.

What’s become clear over the last decade is that both Ken Bone and Ernie Kent failed to lure enough talent to WSU, and talent is ultimately what wins games. Which means Pat Chun’s top priority needs to be figuring out who can get enough talent to Pullman.

We already know that talking a good game isn’t enough. If it was, Ernie — the undisputed king of talkers among recent WSU coaches — would have produced a reasonable facsimile of his accomplishments at Oregon instead of producing a .372 winning percentage with five consecutive teams ranked 186th or worse in the Pomeroy Rankings.

This — like then — is a call for the athletic director to pursue something unconventional. And I’m going to crib heavily from what I wrote back on March 19, 2014, because I don’t think a whole lot has changed.

A lot of people have said over the years that Bone’s failure was proof positive that former athletics director Jim Sterk should have sought out a Bennett disciple to replace Tony Bennett, and Kent’s failure has only cemented that belief. Even now, I’m seeing people float former Bennett assistant Ben Johnson’s name as a potential candidate. (Johnson is now an assistant at Portland.)

I get it. But I think the conclusion that the only way to win in Pullman days is the Bennett way is faulty, and unnecessarily limits the pool of coaching candidates. The larger point is why the Bennett way of playing was able to be successful at a school that has had such precious little basketball success over the years. And I don’t think it was because of the defense.

I mean, it was the defense, but more specifically, it wasn’t the defensive system itself — there’s nothing inherently successful about the pack line. Any system depends on whether the coach can obtain the players necessary to execute his vision. I mean, Ernie Kent could have decided to run North Carolina’s fast break/secondary break on every possession ... but that’s not going produce North Carolina’s results.

Systems do not make the players. Players make the system.

Now, it’s terribly difficult to identify Ernie Kent’s system, beyond “shoot lots of 3s.” Ernie had a bit of a reputation for just being a “roll it out” kind of coach at Oregon, which is unfair because you don’t get to this level by knowing nothing; however, at the same time, whenever I watched the Cougars, I ended up confused as to how the actions in the half court were supposed to lead to something — never mind the quotes I saw from players that said (paraphrased) “Ernie just lets us figure it out.” And then there was the mishmash of terrible defensive sets, which produced awful results.

I’m sure Ernie had some idea in his head of what he was trying to build in Pullman and how those players were going to eventually play. And it probably was something similar to what he had success with in Eugene. But he never came close to sniffing the kinds of recruits here that he landed there. These two things are inextricably tied together.

On-floor coaching quite obviously played some kind of role with Kent’s train wreck, but paramount was that neither Bone nor Kent had the players to make their systems. And since I’m a big believer in Occam’s Razor, the explanation probably is simple enough — both coaches pursued the same kinds of recruits that other high majors were pursuing, and a WSU coach, with his well-known program limitations, just isn’t going to win enough of those battles. (One could argue that the last two coaches didn’t actually win any of those battles.)

It’s worthwhile at this point to consider Tony Bennett’s teams. Not too many of those guys had other major college options; Derrick Low did, Taylor Rochestie probably could have transferred elsewhere after leaving Tulane, and Klay Thompson had a bunch of programs sniffing around after skyrocketing up the recruiting rankings late. But most of the other guys were pretty famously off the radar of major programs. Yet, they produced some mind-boggling numbers (for WSU) on both ends of the floor, reaching as high as 9th in adjusted defensive efficiency and 33rd in adjusted offensive efficiency.

I think we can agree that Tony Bennett’s teams were more “talented” than this year’s WSU squad that finished in 11th place, but comparisons like that can be tricky. In terms of athletic and/or basketball ability, the gulf between the two teams probably isn’t that big. Aron Baynes obviously was a better post player than anything we’ve currently got, but Robert Franks, CJ Elleby certainly would have fit in as “talented” enough to play for Bennett. Heck, Marvin Cannon is basically a better shooting version of Marcus Capers, right down to being left handed.

Bennett didn’t grab five guys off the street — for goodness sakes, Baynes has enjoyed a lucrative NBA career and Klay will be a hall of famer, to say nothing of other Bennett alumni who enjoyed long careers overseas — and it’s clear from what Bennett has done at Virginia for the last decade* that the guy might be the best talent evaluator in the country, so let’s not get too crazy here. But he did successfully recruit a whole bunch of guys who had a lot more value to him than they did to Stanford, UCLA, Oregon or Washington. And he’s winning ACC titles over Duke and North Carolina and securing No. 1 seeds in the NCAA tournament in the same fashion.

*My goodness, has it actually been that long?? :single tear emoji:

The lack of demand for most of his players’ services at other major conference schools made them available to Bennett and WSU. It’s the Moneyball approach to recruiting — looking for a market inefficiency driven by a unique system that gives the coach access to a different pool of players who can allow them to compete at a high major level.

Now, as in five years ago, Chun should be looking for a coach who has a clearly defined ability to tap into an undervalued talent pool.

Is that another pack line coach? Maybe! Longtime Bennett assistant Ron Sanchez is out there, having completed his first year as coach at Charlotte. He’d probably be a fine hire. But limiting the search in that way is too narrow. Let’s look at some potential extremes that would allow WSU to get weird.

What about the modified Princeton offense of Joe Scott, who had pretty good success at Air Force and Denver? That allowed Scott to go after smart, disciplined, less athletic players who can out-execute an opponent. Scott was fired a few years ago by the Pioneers, which has proved to be a pretty dumb decision. He’s been an assistant the last three seasons, currently under Tom Crean at Georgia. He’s probably not desirable to any other high major, and he’s definitely available.

On the complete opposite end of the spectrum, another idea might be going all in on forcing turnovers defensively, a la VCU. You might say WSU doesn’t have a prayer of recruiting the kinds of athletes required to make that kind of a system work, but I’d argue it would actually give the coach a chance to recruit players overlooked by our Pac-12 peers. When you’re more concerned with players simply being long and athletic (sorry) on defense and less concerned with how skilled they are offensively — really, just a different version of the Bennett approach — you can probably convince some of those guys who end up at midmajors to come to Pullman.

One such coach, whose team you can watch play in the First Four on Tuesday, is Byron Smith at Prairie View A&M. In three years, he’s taken the Panthers from a program that was regularly in the kenpom 300s to a team ranked one spot ahead of WSU (and in the NCAA tournament) behind a defense that takes the ball away at the second best rate in the entire country. They also only shoot about 31 percent from three. I doubt a guy currently coaching an HBCU in the SWAC says no if WSU comes calling — he’s likely making less than $200,000.

Another idea is to hire someone with deep connections in international recruiting. The name Tommy Lloyd is the first one that comes up in that regard, although it’s hard to imagine a Gonzaga assistant coming down the road to take over our particular dumpster fire when he could either probably have a better job somewhere or just wait until Mark Few retires. But there are others out there who tap into the overseas talent pool, albeit less successfully.

There are a lot of different directions this thing could go and have a chance to work out favorably for WSU. But whoever the next coach is, he almost certainly must change the talent pool by having a strong philosophy to which he successfully recruits.

Or else he’s probably doomed from he start.