Washington State head coach Kyle Smith is already something of a cult figure on the Palouse and in basketball analytics circles. From the outside, his resume does not include a single NCAA tournament or NIT appearance in 12 years as a head coach. Still, he is revered by many and almost universally recognized as being good at his job.
The lack of NCAA tournament appearances is easily explainable—Smith has taken on some of the most difficult head coaching positions, where postseason play is more a dream than an expectation. At Columbia, he turned a cellar-dweller into a winner. He did the same at San Francisco. At both those stops, finishing in the top half of the conference likely meant a good season and winning record, but not an NCAA tournament bid.
Smith has once again turned around a program in his first two seasons at WSU, but the expectations are much different. A top-half finish in the Pac-12, especially this year’s Pac-12, puts a team in serious conversation for a trip to the NCAA tournament and almost certainly guarantees at least an NIT appearance.
Is the 2021-22 Wazzu basketball team a top-half Pac-12 squad? Those that voted in the preseason media poll don’t think so—the Cougs finished 8th there. If you look at Kenpom.com, the Cougs are projected to finish seventh in the league, in a cluster of four teams from No. 6 to No. 10 that all fall between No. 58 and No. 73 in Kenpom’s national rankings. WSU sits at No. 63.
How often do teams that start a season at No. 63 in the KenPom rankings end up in the NCAA tournament? Going back to 2012 (the most recent season for which KenPom has daily archives), the team that started the year as KenPom No. 63 went to the NCAA tournament two times out of nine seasons—Providence in 2017 and Boise State in 2018. Rutgers would have solidly made it in 2020.
So, starting the season at No. 63 is no guarantee for the tournament, but it’s still a spot from which at-large teams have begun. Improvement is a must. Boise State moved up to No. 36 by the start of the 2015 Big Dance, while Providence was No. 53 before its first-round loss to Creighton. Rutgers had risen to No. 28 before the season abruptly ended.
Standing pat at No. 63 certainly wouldn’t do WSU any favors—no team that ended the regular season at that spot in the last 10 years secured an at-large NCAA tournament bid. Liberty (2019), Vermont (2017), and Hawaii (2016) each won conference tournaments in one-bid leagues.
There have been four NIT bids for teams that started at No. 63 and four for teams that ended at No. 63 in the last 10 years, so there are good postseason prospects overall. An NIT trip would be a good step for the program, but the team and the fans are hoping for more than that.
If the NCAA tournament is the goal, WSU will need to overperform its KenPom expectation. The good news? That is something Smith has done nearly every year he’s been a head coach.
Smith’s teams have beaten their initial KenPom rank in nine of 11 seasons. On average, those squads gain 30 spots.
This is how someone builds a reputation as a program builder. This is what it looks like to be a good head coach—it’s one thing to go somewhere that always wins, and rack up NCAA tournament appearances. That’s still an accomplishment, but it’s another thing to regularly get more out of programs than what is expected. Smith has done that in his two seasons at WSU, and he’s done it much more often than not in the past.
Will Wazzu be NCAA Tournament Worthy?
If the Cougs jump Smith’s average of 30 KenPom spots, that would put them firmly in the position of teams that typically make the tournament—No. 33. However, gaining ground can be tougher at the top of the standings.
Looking at how KenPom ranks teams—by adjusted efficiency margin—can give some additional insight. Adjusted efficiency margin is the difference between a team’s adjusted offensive efficiency rating (how many points they’d expect to score over 100 possessions against an average defense) and its adjusted defensive efficiency rating (how many points they’d expect to allow over 100 possessions against an average offense).
Smith’s squads have beaten their adjusted efficiency margin prediction by 3.45 points on average since 2012. For the 2020-2021 season, KenPom predicts WSU at a +13.09 adjusted efficiency margin. If you simply add Smith’s average gain, that places the Cougs at +16.54. That margin would land them at No. 38, another spot that is typically solidly within the tournament.
Weird things can happen for teams in the 30s and 40s on KenPom, but for the most part, those squads have done enough to get into the NCAA tournament. If Washington State can outperform expectations like an average Smith-led group and win the games they need to win, they could find some madness in March for the first time since 2008.