TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – There is still plenty of room to improve between now and the start of ACC play later this month.
But, eight games into the season, there are signs that Florida State’s defense is rounding into form.
Consider the Seminoles’ win over George Washington on Sunday, in which they held the Colonials to 22.6 percent shooting and a paltry 48 points while forcing 18 turnovers.
Or their previous outing, in which they stifled Minnesota to the tune of 32.2 percent shooting and 17 turnovers in a 75-67 victory.
Improved defense might not be the only reason the Seminoles are 7-1 and off to their best start since the 2008-09 season. But it’s among the biggest.
And it will likely be on display this week, when the Seminoles play three home games in the span of five days. FSU hosts Southern Mississippi Tuesday at 7 p.m., then follows up with dates against Nicholls State on Thursday (9 p.m., ESPNU) and No. 21 Florida on Sunday (4 p.m., ESPNU).
“We know that if we can play defense at a high level, get stops and possessions with rebounds, we can do what we do best. And that’s get out and run,” junior guard Xavier Rathan-Mayes said. “I think guys are really taking defense to heart.”
Florida State is allowing an average of 70.9 points per game to opponents this year, a modest improvement from last year’s 74.0 average.
However, the Seminoles have dramatically bettered their field-goal percentage defense – down from 44.2 percent to 37.2. And they’ve upped their defensive rebounding average, from 25.5 a year ago to 28.0 this season.
They’ve also seen upticks in steals (7.1 per game in 2015-16, 7.3 now), blocks (4.08, 5.25) and turnovers forced (12.9, 14.5).
Granted, this year’s numbers are skewed by the fact that the Seminoles have yet to play the upper echelon of the ACC.
But for a program that was built on a foundation of defense – the Seminoles led the nation in field-goal percentage defense in both 2010 and 2011 – signs of progress are welcome.
“I’m pleased with the progress we’re making,” FSU coach Leonard Hamilton said. “But when you watch the film, you realize that we’ve still got a long way to go.”
Tops on Hamilton’s priority list Monday was rebounding. He mentioned that George Washington’s meager shooting percentage from Sunday is actually a bit misleading, and that it came about largely because the Seminoles allowed GW to attempt so many shots.
The Colonials grabbed 23 offensive rebounds at FSU’s expense – by far the most the Seminoles have allowed this season – but just couldn’t convert their extra opportunities.
Despite all those offensive boards, GW finished with just 20 second-chance points.
“You play great defense and you cause them to miss and then you give them a second opportunity, then you’ve got to defend them again,” Hamilton said. “We can do that against George Washington. I’m not real sure we can do that against another type of team. So we’ve got to correct that.”
Florida State’s next two games ought to provide an opportunity to shore up a few areas of concern.
Southern Mississippi is 3-3 and comes in on a two-game skid that includes double-digit losses to South Alabama and Jackson State.
And at 4-4 and coming off a 101-69 loss to UL-Lafayette, Nicholls State hasn’t fared much better.
Sophomore Terance Mann said that FSU’s ability to keep its focus this week in advance of Sunday’s rivalry clash with Florida will be a good indicator of the team’s maturity.
“It’s definitely a test,” he said. “We’ve got to go out there and set statements for that Florida game, so we’re not coming off a loss. (We want to be) coming off wins, playing great defense. So these games are really going to help us prepare.”