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WSU rewind: In semifinal loss to Colorado, Cougs' shot-making issues give reason for pause

Mar. 16—LAS VEGAS — On Friday night, early in Washington State's 58-52 Pac-12 Tournament semifinal loss to Colorado, a sequence with important ramifications unfolded.

It came when WSU coach Kyle Smith, recognizing his team's offense was struggling and needed some scoring, inserted his freshman spark plug. Around the midway point of the first half, guard Isaiah Watts checked into the game, the Cougars facing an early one-point deficit.

The experiment lasted exactly 16 seconds of game time. Watts tossed a bad post entry pass, which Colorado stole. On the other end, Watts got switched on to Buffalo forward Tristan de Silva, who has 6 inches and 50 pounds on him. He looked the part, head faking Watts into the air, leaning in for the foul and flipping the shot home, good for a 16-13 lead.

Smith yanked Watts immediately. The lesson was clear: Whatever scoring upside Watts provided paled in comparison to his defensive shortcomings, which smart teams such as Colorado have exposed. In one two-play sequence, Smith realized he couldn't play one of his only players capable of igniting the Cougs out of such a sluggish night.

That didn't just matter on Friday night. It figures to play a role next weekend, when No. 22 WSU (24-9) takes on its NCAA Tournament foe, because the Cougars counted on for scoring punches are showing few signs of life.

The two examples are freshman guard Myles Rice and senior wing Andrej Jakimovski, both of whom can't find the range from distance, at least not recently. With a 0-for-6 showing in Friday's game, which included a futile heave at the buzzer, Rice has missed his last 24 tries from beyond the arc, dragging his season 3-point percentage down to 27% — including 25% in conference play.

Jakimovski is playing through a shoulder injury that is clearly limiting him. He shot 1 for 7 in Friday's game, missing three layups, his only make coming on a 3-pointer early in the second half. He was better a day prior, knocking down three 3-pointers in WSU's win over Stanford, but his shot doesn't look nearly as reliable as his 33% season mark might suggest. He has made six of his past 22 3-point attempts (27%).

Among other things, this means Washington State has one player it can trust to hit shots and stay on the floor for defense — junior wing Jaylen Wells. He scored 11 points on Friday, hitting 3 of 8 on 3-pointers. He misfired on a late attempt to tie the game, but he got less than a minute of rest, playing 39 minutes. Smith clearly trusts him — and he needs Wells' shot-making.

"I think we got good shots. We just gotta hit them," Wells said. "They did pressure us a little bit. We had a couple empty possessions, couldn't get a shot up, or it was a turnover."

That's another can of worms — WSU has now committed 31 turnovers in its past two losses, including 19 against Colorado — but the bigger issue involves the Cougars' scoring output. They registered their lowest of the season in Friday's game. They made 4 of 19 3-pointers. They couldn't play Watts, a 38% 3-point shooter, the one player who could have brought their offense to life.

"It was their defense, their pressure," Smith said of Colorado. "We had trouble getting the ball across the floor. They were denying."

These issues project to bog down WSU's offense in several ways — and they already have. Besides the points the Cougs are leaving on the board with missed shots, they're also changing the way opponents guard them. As Friday's game unfolded, the Buffaloes recognized Rice didn't want to shoot from deep, so they went under screens, sagged off Rice a tad on the perimeter.

That created even more problems. As Colorado guard KJ Simpson went under screens, he took away Rice's ability to run the pick-and-roll, one of the better parts of his game. It removed WSU forward Isaac Jones as a roller/lob threat, one of the best parts of his game, showing why the Cougs' offense looked like a shell of itself in the loss.

Can WSU navigate these issues? Surely. Jones is always a threat around the rim, scoring 13 points against Colorado, and reserve guard Kymany Houinsou has showed adept touch around the rim, especially on the offensive glass.

But that's to say nothing of the way Rice's lack of a threatening 3-point shot tends to grind WSU's offense to a halt. The Cougs closed with a lineup of Rice, Wells, Jakimovski, Jones and Houinsou. That's two nonshooters, Jones and Houinsou. One shaky shooter, Rice. One reliable shooter, Wells, and one injured shooter, Jakimovski, who played like it.

Smith and Washington State didn't have much of a choice, but lineups like those are low on spacing, giving Rice even less room to do what he does best — get to the midrange and the rim. Maybe that's why he chose to be ultraaggressive in transition, giving away two costly turnovers, including one behind-the-back pass that was intercepted.

"Went behind the back in transition — just go lay it in. Don't worry about that stuff," Smith said of Rice. "But it's hard for me to be too critical of the guy, being a freshman, first-year guy. Getting a lot of attention — earned. He's an all-league player in his first year at this level. It's pretty amazing."

Watts has improved on defense. That's a key reason why he saw 28 minutes against USC, 15 against UCLA and 26 against UW, which gave him enough time to knock down timely 3-pointers in all three contests.

But savvy teams will find ways to get Watts switched on to bad matchups. Colorado did it well. Whoever WSU draws in next week's tournament might, too, and the Cougs might have to get creative to solve some of the offensive issues that will follow.