Program Reviews: Byron Smith has Prairie View A&M operating at unseen levels

Located on the northwestern edge of the Houston area is Prairie View A&M, a historically black university and the second-oldest school in Texas. Chances are that if you’re a fan of a high-major basketball team, your team has probably played Prairie View A&M or another SWAC team in November or December of any given year. For years, these were fairly routine exhibitions that saw the home team win by double digits. Prairie View spends most non-conference schedules entirely on the road, almost never playing a home game before Christmas. 2019-20 was a rare exception, and even then, their home opponent was Jarvis Christian College from the NAIA.

For most of Prairie View’s history, they were seen as an also-ran of the SWAC. Prior to 2018-19, they held a 29.3% winning percentage at the Division I level. In their 41 seasons of D-1 basketball, they’d made the NCAA Tournament just once…and held the ignominious distinction of suffering the biggest blowout loss in NCAA Tournament history, losing 110-52 to Kansas. (Fun fact: 1 seed Kansas would go on to lose to 8 seed Rhode Island two days later. March!) Prairie View had never finished SWAC play with better than a 14-4 record, and their highest-ranked team in the KenPom era was 2002-03’s 249th-placed squad.

Then came 2018-19. Almost out of nowhere – though they did go 12-6 in the SWAC the year prior – Prairie View took the SWAC by storm. Gone were the days of being everyone’s favorite opponent to beat up on. They opened the year with a road win at Santa Clara, then went 17-1 in SWAC play and defeated rival Texas Southern to earn an NCAA Tournament bid. They’d go on to lose in the First Four, but it was undeniably the most successful season in Panthers history.

2019-20 looked to present more of the same. The Panthers pulled off a win at UTSA, went 14-4 in conference play to win the regular season title, and entered the SWAC Tournament as the favorite to repeat and earn a second straight NCAA Tournament bid. They had two of the three best players in the conference in Gerard Andrus and Devonte Patterson. Unfortunately, we all know how this ends. Before Prairie View were set to play in the SWAC semifinals, college basketball as we know it came to a screeching halt. The potential of more March memories were lost, and Prairie View will have to replace four members of their starting five.

That said, Byron Smith is already the most successful coach in Prairie View history (52.8% winning percentage; second-best at Prairie View is 37.5%!) and is solidifying his place as a Houston legend. Smith was a two-time member of the All-Southwest Conference team as a player at Houston, has spent nearly his entire professional career in Texas, and has turned the previously moribund Prairie View program into a legitimate force in basketball’s most interesting conference. Also, he’s hilarious, so that’s a bonus.

This interview was lightly edited and shortened for clarification.

Will Warren: Describe your program philosophy in a few sentences.

Byron Smith: “I would say we have a very intense program, especially on the court. We’re very, very, very tough in terms of how we play and how we prepare. To clarify, we want to be pitbulls on the court but collies off of it – very kind, good people away from basketball. Our goal is to be gentlemen and great students off the court. We want our kids to affect other people in a positive way. On the court, we want to be the grittiest, grimiest team. We’re going to be the underdog a lot of nights, and we want to be the hardest-playing team on the floor. It gives us an opportunity to win some games we shouldn’t.”

WW: Who are your main influences as a coach?

BS: “For me, obviously first and foremost is my mother. She’s given me the blueprint to be successful in life – being committed, being dedicated, and having strong faith in God. In terms of on the court, to be honest, it’s not anyone basketball-wise. I’ve always looked away from the game for influence. For instance, Herm Edwards (Arizona State football HC) is a huge influence. His philosophy and his process is a great influence on what I do as a coach. I’m old enough to remember him as a player, because his Eagles used to kick my Cowboys’ butt all the time.”

WW: Rarely do you play a home game before Christmas, though this past season was an exception. You typically spend the entirety of the first two months playing true road games, with occasional neutral-site fixtures. What are the positives of these long stretches without home games, if there are any?

BS: “I like to try to give our young people a chance to see the world. Believe it or not, a lot of the young kids that come through our program haven’t had a real chance to travel and see some of these places in America. They have AAU, but you get four and five guys to a room, sleeping on the bathroom sink, all that stuff. We get to go to some really neat places, especially to the West Coast. We fly a lot, but we take bus trips, too. This year, we played at Arizona State, so we got on the bus and drove there, along with then driving five more hours to Los Angeles to play Loyola Marymount. These long road trips give our players a chance to bond before conference play starts. It gives them a chance to learn who their teammates are away from the court. It allows you to know who you’re going to battle with and if you can trust them. If you’re in an alley fight, what guys do I want with me? There’s a lot of educational pieces that come from it. We have to generate revenue for our program, obviously, but it’s way more than going to pick up a check. When January rolls around, we’re probably going to play some of the best basketball we’ve played.”

WW: Thank you for answering that – I’ve long wondered about how teams handle the mental and physical effects of long travel, along with how you handle travel in the first place.

BS: “Let me add something really quick. What we’ve been able to incorporate on these trips is that sometimes, you can win and not have the most points on the board. That’s something that we look to. We set goals as a team, and we want to improve every game. How are we shooting? How have we established our defense? Sometimes, we’ve walked away from a tough road loss and have felt a certain way. Obviously, I don’t get paid to try, I get paid to win, but there are positives from some of these losses.”

WW: You’ve gone 31-5 in conference play the last two seasons, and these two teams are statistically the best in Prairie View’s D-1 history. What’s changed from the day you took the job to now to make this happen?

BS: “In the past, there’s been a bit of a mindset across the league where you’re super-focused on beating your rival. Prairie View and Texas Southern have a big rivalry, and even if Texas Southern is 0-30, if they beat Prairie View, they consider it a good season. That’s not anything I’ve ever subscribed to. I think we’ve raised the bar. We’re getting a lot more national recognition that I don’t think Prairie View really received before. We aren’t Butler or Wichita State, of course, but we’re striving to become that. The culture has changed, expectations have changed, and I do think that we’ve had a good three-year run. In the past, our program wanted to score lots of points but didn’t play defense. Now, we’re a defense-first program. Some nights, the ball’s just not going to go in the basket. How do you win games when that happens? Well, you get aggressive, you deflect passes, you force turnovers, you get rebounds. We’ve also started to attract kids that normally would’ve gone to UTEP or Texas State or Louisiana-Lafayette.”

WW: Your defense is pressure-packed and hyper-aggressive, and this marks the third-straight season Prairie View has finished in the top 10 nationally in turnovers forced. What are some of the advantages of this aggressive style of defense?

BS: “For one thing, it’s kind of like a mosquito on a hot day. We’re always in your face, and we like to piss you off. We’re like a bunch of gnats on a hot day on the lake that won’t go away. One of the things that’s caused us problems that’s documented is that we foul a lot. We are aggressive, and sometimes fouls happen, but that’s part of what we do. We like to take the fight to you. We’re that little kid coming to school that gets bullied a lot and is starting to fight back. It’s not ‘press’ for us, it’s pressure. We deny the wings, we trap the corners, and we swarm the posts. We want our defense to dictate our offense.”

WW: You’ve also been near the top nationally in three-point defense the last three seasons. How do you aim to make opposing three-point attempts difficult?

BS: “We focus a lot on our closeouts. Obviously, everyone focuses on closeouts, but for us, you can be yanked from the game if you have a poor closeout. You may have a hard time getting back in! Closeouts come at a premium, especially if you do them the right way. Even a 28% shooter, if he’s wide-open, that probably goes up to about 35% or 36%. We want to distract guys into taking contested three-point shots because we fly around non-stop.”

WW: Offensively, your teams are consistently great at getting to the line, and two of your players – Devonte Patterson and Darius Williams – drew nearly 7 fouls per 40 minutes. Why do you place this emphasis on going inside and drawing fouls?

BS: “Because we have to! We might be the worst shooting team in the country. (laughs) If you look at our three-point percentage on offense compared to defense, it might be the exact same. We do have good shooters, but if you’re constantly relying on 22-foot shots going in, for us, that means the potential of having a long season. The four seasons I’ve been here, the best three-point shooter on the team has been Byron Smith, the head coach. If you know anybody in the NBA looking for a 50-year-old spot-up shooter, give them my number.”

WW: This year’s team was one of the most experienced in all of college basketball, but you’re returning several key pieces for the 2020-21 squad. What are some steps forward you’re looking for the program to take in the near future?

BS: “We want to sustain our success. We don’t want to go from first to worst, or even from first to the middle of the pool. The name of the game in all facets of life is consistency. It’s difficult year-to-year to stay in the top one or two, but if they do pass the transfer rule, we’re hopeful we might be able to land a couple of high-impact guys that were previously playing in the Big 12 or Sun Belt or maybe even the SEC. Guys like that can walk into this conference and play 30 minutes a night.”

WW: What’s your go-to entertainment during the quarantine?

BS: “I had an Uber driver about seven months ago that ended up being my girlfriend. Congratulate me on that one! She introduced me to Netflix, but to be honest, if you find me at home, 90% of the time it’ll be with Sanford and Son on.”

Here’s a short video containing some of my favorite plays from the Prairie View A&M games I sampled.

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