WAR MEMORIAL GYM — Back in October, as Kyle Smith prepared to lead the University of San Francisco men’s basketball team into his debut season, the head coach made sure his players knew exactly where they stood in the eyes of the outside hoops world.
Smith carried a copy of the West Coast Conference Coaches Poll, in which his team had been picked to finish second-to-last.
“We definitely knew about that,” said shooting guard Charles Minlend, the first player who Smith recruited to the Hilltop last spring. “That was actually the first thing that Coach Smith showed us the first day of practice. I remember he pulled out the papers and showed us where we were ranked. That was one thing that stuck with us.”
Minlend said the the competition’s lack of respect put a chip on the Dons’ shoulder, but he also grasped where the doubters were coming from. As USF approaches the midway point in the WCC season, Minlend is one of two freshman starting alongside a trio of sophomores.
“Everyone always says that with youth,” Minlend said, referring to the lowly expectations. “It’s understandable because we’re not as experienced as other teams are, but I don’t know, we’re just competitors. So, even if we might not be as experienced as other teams, we still want to win just as badly or even more than other teams that we play against. So, we’re going to try and play with that passion and that fire every single time we step on the floor.”
Smith sees an obvious benefit in letting the young guys accrue valuable minutes on the court — even if the process has also included the team taking its lumps.
Starting with a 72-58 loss to Santa Clara on Dec. 31, the Dons dropped four consecutive conference games to begin the WCC season at 1-4.
“Santa Clara, they got us pretty good,” Smith recalled. “I think that might have been the first time we questioned ourselves a little bit.”
With the Dons now making their second pass through the conference, Minlend thinks the team is starting to find answers.
He said the gelling process began back in August when the Dons went on a 10-day tour across Europe, sweeping a four-game stretch against club teams in Germany, Belgium and France.
“Like coach Smith says, ‘We’re all 15 freshman.’ Like it’s everybody’s first year with this program and with him [leading] the coaching staff,” Minlend said of a roster which includes just one junior and one senior. “But we’ve had a lot of time that we’ve spent together. We had the opportunity to travel this summer. To go to Europe and everything. I think we really bonded there.”
Halfway into Year 1, Smith’s fingerprints are all over the program. The coach loves shooters — especially the type who can hit from beyond the arc.
Smith will insist that it’s all about taking what the defense gives them, only to admit his goal is to have five players out on the court who can drain shots from long distance.
“If you look back at when I was coaching at Columbia, we were one of those analytics teams,” he said when asked if the reliance on the 3-ball has always been part of the Kyle Smith playbook.
Smith’s Lions led the Ivy league in 3-point attempts in each of his final two seasons coaching in Upper Manhattan. His Dons are at the top of the charts in that department in his first season in The City.
“Well, he likes layups a lot,” Minlend explained. “So, if we get those, then he’s happy. But percentage wise, mid-range jumpshots aren’t really like the highest percentage shots, so he thinks if you have an open 3, then you take it every single time. Sometimes he gets discouraged if you don’t take the open 3.”
That the Dons lead the conference in attempts yet rank fifth in 3-point shooting percentage underscores the coach’s philosophy.
When asked where his band of unheralded 3-point shooting “freshmen” stand midway through the conference season, Smith dodges the question.
“Overall, I don’t know,” Smith said. “I haven’t really thought about it. We’re just trying to …”
Smith trails off in the middle of the sentence as he stops to laugh.
“I am a walking cliché, but it’s true. It’s like really, we talk about [taking it] possession-by-possession [and] kind of looking up at the end of the season and seeing where we’re at.”