Warriors guard Klay Thompson (11) drives to the basket as Nuggets guard Monte Morris (11) gives chase during the second quarter on March 8, 2019 at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California. (Chris Victorio | Special to S.F. Examiner)

Warriors’ Thompson hopes USF’s Smith gets Wazzu job

Warriors guard Klay Thompson is stumping for USF’s Kyle Smith to get Washington State job

OAKLAND — The Golden State Warriors’ Klay Thompson has filled out his NCAA March Madness bracket, and on Thursday, he said his pick for the final is Duke versus North Carolina, with the Blue Devils coming out on top.

“Not very original,” he said. “My guy Tony Bennett, I think this year, is the year for him to break into the Final Four.”

Bennett coached Thompson in his first season at Washington State, a program which just fired its head coach, Ernie Kent. Thompson had a recommendation for who should replace Kent, who went 58-98 in five seasons in Pullman: San Francisco’s Kyle Smith.

“Kyle [Smith] at USF is doing a great job,” Thompson said at the Warriors’ practice facility on Thursday. “I recommend him for an interview.”

During Thompson’s three-year career from 2008 to 2011, the Cougars went 55-44. Thompson played his first season under Bennett, who had been to back-to-back NCAA Tournaments the two years before Thompson arrived. Since then, Washington State has had just one winning season. As a freshman, Thompson and the Cougars, under then-head coach Tony Bennett, made the NCAA Tournament. That was the last time they’ve been to the postseason.

Thompson has not met Smith, nor has he been to games, but he has seen the Dons on television.

“I’m just a fan of the way his team plays,” Thompson said. “They look good.”

Smith had the Dons in contention for an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament — which they haven’t made in 21 years — until the final two weeks of the season, when San Francisco was hit with a flu bug and a bone bruise in the foot of senior point guard Frankie Ferrari.

Even then, it was anticipated that the Dons would at least make the NIT, but the new selection format — which guarantees teams who won their conference regular-season title, but lost in their conference tournament — a spot hurt their chances. So did losing the final three games of the regular season, plus a West Coast Conference Tournament quarterfinal to Pepperdine. Smith implied to the Examiner that the team would only accept an invitation to the NIT, and not the lower-tier CIT or NIT.

Smith, however, did handily beat both Cal and Stanford, and beat St. Mary’s at home, while giving No. 1 Gonzaga a run for their money at War Memorial Gym, leading the Bulldogs with 3:50 to go.

Smith had taken San Francisco to the CBI in 2017 and 2018, going all the way to a three-game championship series against Texas State last season. Before that, San Francisco hadn’t made back-to-back playoff appearances since 2011 and 2012, and had made the postseason just three times since 2000.

Smith has gone 63-40 with the Dons, winning at least 20 games in each of his first three seasons — the first coach in program history to do so. Before that, he went 101-82 with Columbia, winning 20 or more games twice, making two playoff appearances and winning the CIT in 2016.

Smith began his coaching career at San Diego, and after a brief stint at Air Force, moved to St. Mary’s with Randy Bennett. He was instrumental in helping turn the Gaels into a West Coast Conference force.

“He’s had success at every program he’s been at, and turned around,” Thompson said. “USF was really good this year, and they beat some Pac-10 [sic] schools, so I think he’d be a great candidate.”

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