TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The sample size – 11 games – is relatively small when attempting to analyze just how good coach Leonard Hamilton’s 15th Florida State men’s basketball team might be.
In fact, Hamilton strayed from making any proclamations, even after Sunday’s 83-78 win over No. 21 Florida improved the Seminoles’ record to 10-1; their best through 11 games since the 2008-09 season.
“I’m not going to be too philosophical about this because we still realize who we are,” Hamilton said, when asked what the victory over the Gators could mean for his team. “…No one is going to the NCAA Tournament with only 10 victories. We’ve got a lot more work to do to keep trying to get better so that we can prepare ourselves so that once we get into ACC play that we’re at our best.”
Saturday afternoon’s Orange Bowl Classic date with Manhattan in Sunrise, Fla. (1:30 p.m., Fox Sports Florida/Sun Sports) and Monday’s home matinee with Samford are the only things separating the Noles from the start of that ACC schedule. Still, this group has already set itself apart from previous renditions in so many ways that it is becoming difficult not to acknowledge their special qualities.
Beyond the glistening record heading into the home stretch of the non-conference schedule, these Seminoles have impressed on several fronts. Save for squandering an 18-point lead in an 89-86 loss to Temple in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Nov. 24, Hamilton’s bunch has handled the opposition.
Florida State is winning by an average margin of 20.8 points and scoring just under 90 points (89.6) a game. Those numbers stand out for a program that has endured momentum-sapping, pre-conference setbacks to the likes of South Alabama, Mercer, Northeastern, Nebraska and Hofstra – among others – since making its last NCAA Tournament appearance at the end of the 2011-12 season.
Not only has Hamilton’s most recent club handled its business, but it has done so with a roster which includes seven players who did not contribute last season, including five newcomers and two who sat out with injuries.
Still, the veteran coach has had no qualms going deep into his bench for results, with all 13 active players averaging double-digit minutes, including 11 who have played in at least eight games. That’s a significant change in philosophy for Hamilton, who is maximizing the assets accrued through consecutive strong recruiting classes, while loosening the reigns on the offensive end as well.
The Noles have not only regained their reputation as a tormenting defensive unit – opponents are shooting 37-percent from the floor and turning the ball over 15 times a game – but they are attacking at the offensive end, producing three 100-point performances to date. That last happened 21 seasons ago.
Sophomore swingman Dwayne Bacon and freshman forward Jonathan Isaac, the team’s top two scorers and next-level prospects, aren’t the only Noles making contributions. Each of the remaining 11 players on the roster have recorded at least one double-figure scoring performance this season.
“I’ve said all along that the strength of this team is in the quality of our depth,” Hamilton said. “We’ve played a lot of players and with a lot of different combinations on the floor, hoping that we develop the type of chemistry with this team that it wouldn’t matter who is on the floor.”
Yet it’s not the only strength. The Noles are playing hard at both ends and also unselfishly.
“We moved the ball; made the extra pass,” Hamilton said, after his team dished out 23 assists on 36 field goals in a recent rout of Southern Miss. “I thought we played tremendously unselfish. You like to see that type of chemistry developing with your team this early in the season.”
Through 11 games, 51 percent of FSU’s field goals are coming off assists. Over the past five seasons, no Seminoles squad has assisted on more than 50 percent of its field goals.
Improved leadership is another area where the team has shown growth. Sophomore forward Terance Mann and fifth-year center Michael Ojo are providing a great deal of that, which was on display in the win over Florida.
“Terance is turning out to be the leader because he never takes a possession off,” Hamilton said after Mann’s 16-point, 10-rebound contribution against the Gators. “Like I said early on last year, he’s a stat-stuffer. He does all the little things that it takes for you to win the game. He’s a winner, he’s a leader and all the tough, hard-nosed plays that have to be made, he seems to come up with them.”
One Mann play in particular stood out after the Gators trimmed FSU’s double-digit lead to three with under two minutes to play. Following an errant shot, Mann soared over Florida’s Canyon Barry to corral a defensive rebound.
“I just didn’t want them to win, so I just needed that ball,” Mann said of the carom, harkening back to a similar situation last season at home when the Noles yielded a late-game offensive rebound against Pitt, which the Panthers converted into the game-winning 3-pointer.
Valuing possessions and understanding that games can turn at any moment – early or late – is another area where this club appears to have better grasp.
Ojo’s presence on the interior early in the win over Florida helped set the tone for the game, as did his perfect 6-for-6 night at the free throw line and momentum-building dunk conversion of a Bacon lob in the first half.
“How do you block out Ojo?” Florida coach Mike White said, referencing the 7-foot, 304-pound grad student who has improved dramatically after missing last season due to injury. “My goodness [he’s] strong, tough, physical, long, big hands and he throws his body around. He’s something else.
“I thought that they set a tone early first half with him and a couple other guys in there fighting. They got a couple of those loose rebounds early in the game.”
“Coach always says every little thing puts you in a situation to win the basketball game,” Ojo said. “I’m here to lead with whatever I have; verbally talking to them, asking them questions, telling them what we should do and actually going in and making big free throws.”
And the youngsters are clearly taking their cue from the leaders. Junior college transfers Braian Angola-Rodas and PJ Savoy contributed go-ahead 3-pointers off the bench in the first half against the Gators. Freshman guard Trent Forrest and sophomore big man Christ Koumadje were central figures in a second-half run as the Noles opened up a 13-point lead.
Perhaps best of all, Hamilton has stuck with his decision to go deep into his bench, allowing his lesser-experienced players to play through some rough spots. The Noles have repeatedly rewarded that trust with big plays in key moments.
Forrest shrugged off a careless turnover on FSU’s final possession of the first half against Florida and came up big in the second half. Likewise, Isaac rebounded from a sub-par first half by draining four free throws in the final 14 seconds to secure the win.
“I saw that [nervousness] in the first half and at halftime I talked to them and said, ‘I went through the same thing last year,’” Mann said. “‘You just need to play your game and be aggressive,’ especially Jonathan. He played his game and was aggressive down the stretch and hit his free throws. It was good to see.”
“We’ve shown the ability to recover quick when we make mistakes. I like the energy, the camaraderie; I liked the conversation they had with themselves, coaching themselves and holding each other accountable.”
FSU’s growth and development has not gone unnoticed.
On the heels of the Florida win, the Noles returned to the AP Top 25 this week at No. 23; their second appearance this season. FSU debuted at No. 25 on Nov. 21, following a 4-0 start, but dropped out after losing to Temple.
And for the first time this season, they cracked the USA Today Coaches Poll, also at No. 23, having been among the teams receiving votes since the preseason. It marks the first time the Seminoles have appeared in both polls simultaneously since the 2012-13 preseason rankings.
“This gives us a better sense of reality; who we are [against] a very good team in a highly competitive game that you just have to grind out,” Ojo said following the Florida win.
“This is not a 50- or 45-point blowout. This is where you really find out who you are as a team, find out what you’re made of and find out how well you can overcome adversity in different situations. It was a good test for us. I’m happy we came together as a team.”