Nov 23, 2023; Kissimmee, Florida, USA; Iowa State Cyclones guard Curtis Jones (5) look to pass the ball against the Virginia Commonwealth Rams in the first half during the ESPN Events Invitational at State Farm Field House. Mandatory Credit: Nathan Ray Seebeck-USA TODAY Sports
AMES — Curtis Jones knows his shot will come around.
Until it does, the Iowa State transfer guard will continue to focus on defense, ball security and assisting his teammates at a high clip.
That’s all he can do — for now.
“We’ve just got to play better defense if it’s not falling,” said Jones, who hopes to help the Cyclones (5-2) get back on a winning track in Friday’s 7:30 p.m. Big 12-Big East Battle game against DePaul in Chicago. “We hang our hat on defense. If we play defense and shots aren’t falling, we’ll always be in the game at least.”
ISU dropped two of three games in the ESPN Events Invitational last weekend near Orlando, Fla. Jones — a 6-4 guard from Minneapolis who shot 36 percent from 3-point range for Buffalo last season — is shooting 21.4 percent behind the arc this season.
So what gives?
“I’d say more than anything for Curt, is I know he’s a great shooter and I know he’ll make those shots,” Cyclone head coach T.J. Otzelberger said. “But the thing is, he’s taken too high a degree of difficult shots to get himself going. He just needs to keep the basketball on the move, let the rhythm of the game come to him. He’ll knock down that first one and then his rhythm goes. Right now, he’s trying to face that too much.”
Jones’s struggles from 3-point range mirror ISU’s in general. The Cyclones rank 11th in the Big 12 in 3-point shooting at 31.3 percent, and they’re once again down the chart in free throw shooting percentage at 67.8 percent (11th in the league). Those numbers won’t win them many games going forward, but Otzelberger considers the problems eminently fixable as nonconference games eventually dovetail into Big 12 play.
“I’d say the magnitude of the free throws, right, like, when you’re in a game and you haven’t scored in a little bit, and now you get to the line, you know, I could definitely see guys put more pressure on themselves in that situation,” said Otzelberger, whose team shot 33-for-53 (62.2 percent) from the line in consecutive losses to Virginia Tech and No. 12 Texas A&M last weekend. “It’s not the same as what you shoot in practice. You can get tired. You can play noise. It’s just a whole different dynamic.”
It’s also a predicament the Cyclones must solve in their first road game of the season. The Blue Demons (1-5) have struggled early in the season, but always feature talented players in both the frontcourt and the backcourt.
“They’re a group with a lot of gifted individuals, similar to us,” Otzelberger said. “They’re trying to find themselves and fit together, and how do they play for one another?”
That’s the key for Iowa State as it seeks to develop into the third NCAA Tournament-worthy time since Otzelberger took over the program. Defense forms the bedrock. Crisp ball movement gets the offense on track. Grit and determination do the rest — no matter the players, no matter the schedule.
“You learn from your losses,” Jones said. “That’s the biggest thing. We’ll put what we’ve learned into play later.”
What the Cyclones have learned early in the season is that offensive struggles are not a thing of the past — even after racing to a 21-point lead over the Aggies last weekend. Perimeter shooting has once again been a weakness, but scoring in the post can improve, as well.
“It definitely sucks,” senior forward Tre King said. “Losing games we shouldn’t have lost when we do have leads like that, but it’s really exciting for us because knowing we’ve experienced it early and we know when to avoid it and stuff when it matters going into March, and tournament time, and stuff like that, so I’m definitely excited to see how we respond.”