TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Throughout the season, and particularly during the last few weeks, Florida State assistant Stan Jones often talked about “reference points” – bits of experience picked up by the Seminoles’ men’s basketball team that could prove valuable in the future.
And as far as reference points go, it’s hard to beat finishing the season on the doorstep of the Final Four. That’s exactly where the Seminoles found themselves last week after a 58-54 loss to Michigan in the NCAA Tournament’s Elite Eight.
That the Seminoles were fingertips away from college basketball’s biggest showcase left them feeling disappointed in the game’s immediate aftermath. They’d already captured the nation’s attention by beating three straight higher-seeded teams, and they narrowly missed what would’ve been a tying 3-pointer in the final minute against the Wolverines.
But after the tears dried and they returned to a normal routine in Tallahassee, the Seminoles also came upon another realization: They went toe-to-toe with one of the country’s top basketball programs, and perhaps an eventual national champion, and didn’t flinch.
Which means the gap between where the Seminoles are and where they want to be isn’t nearly as wide as they, or anyone else, might have previously thought.
“I think this past season, and how we finished, was a great eye-opener for a lot of us,” guard sophomore guard Trent Forrest said. “To see that we really can play with the best teams in the country.”
“It shows our potential,” freshman guard M.J. Walker added. “We got a taste of success, a taste of what it feels like to be in the Elite Eight. And we learned from it.”
That experience should go a long way toward enhancing what should be one of the ACC’s most experienced rosters next season.
The Seminoles will lose starting guard Braian Angola and popular walk-on Brandon Allen to graduation. They might lose leading scorer Phil Cofer (12.8 points per game) as well, depending on the outcome of an NCAA appeal. And they’ll lose sophomore guard C.J. Walker, who announced earlier this week that he would transfer.
But that’s it.
Terance Mann (12.6 points, 5.4 rebounds) is back. So are Forrest (7.9 ppg, 4.0 apg), Walker (7.0 ppg), shooting specialist P.J. Savoy and promising youngsters Mfiondu Kabengele and Ike Obiagu.
All told, if Cofer is granted a fifth year, the Seminoles will return more than 73 percent of their scoring from a year ago.
“I feel like that chemistry will be a big part of going into next year,” Forrest said. “That’s going to help us a lot. It gives you a sense of confidence, knowing you have players that have been there and gone through that experience.”
And that’s to say nothing of players that understand the principles of coach Leonard Hamilton’s system, understand how to use defense to create offense and, perhaps most importantly, understand and embrace playing specific roles on one of the country’s deepest rosters.
Hamilton loved to say that the Seminoles didn’t have any one hero, and a look at the final stat sheet shows that to be true: FSU had three players average more than 12 points per game, and none that averaged 13.
“I like the team that we have,” Walker said. “Just having the majority of the guys back is great for us. A lot of guys know the system, know what we’re supposed to do.”
Walker figures to play a prominent role as the Seminoles look to maintain – or exceed – their current standard.
A former McDonald’s All-American, Walker showed flashes of brilliance throughout his freshman year, with breakout performances helping to ensure important victories against Virginia Tech and Pittsburgh.
But as the season wore on, Walker also ran into a problem common among freshmen: He simply ran out of gas. He didn’t score more than four points in any of FSU’s final eight games and was shut out twice.
Pushing through that fatigue is a rite of passage for lots of first-year players, and Walker thinks he’ll be better for it in the long run.
“I felt it in the last game, just my legs,” he said. “We’d definitely been playing for a long time. But it’s part of it.”
Walker said he plans to spend the offseason watching film and working to become a more complete guard, which should come in handy as the Seminoles transition into life without C.J. Walker, who started all but two games this season.
Same goes for Forrest, who emerged as perhaps the Seminoles’ most effective player during their tournament run.
If they and their teammates can take the steps forward that they expect, then they see no reason that they can’t make the same type of run next March. Or maybe an even deeper one.
“We were that close,” Walker said. “I’m proud of what we did, what we accomplished, but I feel like we still didn’t play our best basketball.
“I’m ready to get back to work and see what we have in store next year.”