In No. 7 Washington State's prep for No. 2 Iowa State, ball security comes at a premium

Mar. 22—OMAHA, Neb. — For as quick as Isaac Jones is, for his nimble footwork and his springy spin moves, Washington State's forward prefers a different speed. He would rather take his time in the post, back his guy down, maybe grab his own miss and stick it back.

"I like playing slow," Jones said. "I play at my own pace, and I play it slow, and I like to see the floor. Especially since I get doubled a lot, I think playing slow is good, because I can see the floor, scan, make a skip pass and get open shots off it. I think that's what's important about playing slow — not being sped up by other teams."

As seventh-seeded Washington State prepares for second-seeded Iowa State on Saturday, the program's fourth appearance in the NCAA Tournament's round of 32, the Cougars will face that exact challenge.

The Cyclones don't just try to speed up opponents. They try to disorient them.

Iowa State, last week's Big 12 Tournament champion, is all about defense. A physical group, the Cyclones rank second nationally in defensive efficiency and turnover percentage, and they're third nationally in steal percentage, at 15% of their defensive possessions. They haven't allowed more than 65 points since mid-February — in a loss to No. 1 seed Houston.

The Cyclones, who cruised past South Dakota State in Thursday's opening round, take ball pressure to an extreme. They force turnovers on more than a quarter of their defensive trips, second in the country. Center Robert Jones is 10th in the conference in block percentage and guard Tamin Lipsey is sixth nationally in steal percentage (5.2%).

It may be the tallest task of the season for the Cougars, who clipped Drake in a 66-61 win Friday. They played their third game in four tries under something of an offensive haze, shooting just 38% from the field and committing 13 turnovers. WSU made just 5 of 17 layups, a key reason why the club had trouble breaking out all night, and the Cougs posted an uncharacteristically low 22 points in the paint.

Are the Cougs comfortable playing in lower-scoring environments? More important, can they win playing that style?

WSU may not have much of a choice against Iowa State, which will give the Cougs a defensive challenge they may not have seen this season. The good news for the Cougs is, even though they haven't found many wins in these slower games, they found out Friday they have it in them.

Iowa State Cyclones at a glance

"Against some of those opponents, it's been to our advantage," WSU coach Kyle Smith said. "Like Colorado and Washington — we would rather wrestle with them than some of those speed teams. ... Probably (against) Iowa State it will be lower scoring if we take care of the ball. If we don't, if they turn us over — which is what they're good at — they'll get up and down a little bit."

WSU can win Saturday's game by valuing possessions, by playing slower and eschewing turnovers. The Cougs are halfway there. They're one of the country's slowest teams in terms of pace, ranking No. 313 nationally with a tempo rating of 65.0, according to KenPom. They're at their best when they're at their slowest, the kind of trend they want to replicate on Saturday.

To do that, they will have to limit turnovers. They have not been doing that well lately. They had 13 turnovers against Drake, 19 last week against Colorado, 11 against Stanford and 12 against Washington. The last time WSU committed fewer than 10 turnovers came in a win over UCLA, on March 2, when it committed just seven.

Some of the Cougars' turnovers have been entirely unforced. In Thursday's game, wing Jaylen Wells tossed a pass into the second row of the crowd. In last week's game against Colorado, guard Myles Rice committed back-to-back turnovers, including a behind-the-back pass that was easily intercepted. The latter became particularly consequential because it was a live-ball turnover — the kind on which the Cyclones feast, turning them into buckets on the other end.

"We'll take our shots at them, too, and our advantages," Smith said. "But we'll see. They really don't run as much off transition, off misses, as they do just, turn you over and get numbers."

Another area where WSU has been losing turnovers — when Jones has been doubled in the post. At times, he hasn't sensed the double team until it's too late. He had three turnovers against Drake, two against Colorado, none against Stanford, and two apiece against Washington and UCLA.

It's relevant because Iowa State will deploy that strategy, perhaps to an extreme, forcing Jones to get rid of it.

"It doesn't matter. They double the post every possession," Smith said. "Doesn't matter who catches it. They really swarm you. They're almost like a really athletic, quick Tony Bennett team where they double the post every time. It doesn't matter who catches. It will be hard.

"We have to find different ways of getting the ball to different places, I think, and get on the glass a little bit. We have somewhat of an advantage there, I hope."

Cougars' Jakimovski dealing

with shoulder pain

WSU wing Andrej Jakimovski, who scored nine points and hit two 3-pointers in Thursday's game, continues to play through pain in his shooting-arm shoulder. The pain, he says, is a seven or eight on a scale from one to 10.

"When I got hit on a ball screen or something, I felt it for a couple minutes," Jakimovski said. "I gotta play through it. It's not ideal. I just wanna play free. I don't wanna think about the shoulder. But I'll give everything for the team to get the win, so I'm trying to be ready for tomorrow and to win the game."

Jakimovski, who first suffered the injury during WSU's win over USC on Feb. 29, has been playing with pain since. He's also been playing with an arrangement of tape on the shoulder. Against Drake, he made 2 of 7 shots, 2 of 5 3-pointers and 3 of 6 from the free-throw line.

"(I feel it most) when I get hit," Jakimovski said. "For example, like ball screens, I feel it a lot, or finishing, I feel it a lot because I can't extend my arm fully. That was the worst.

"Trying to get it ready for tomorrow because we know it's a huge game."