PITTSBURGH, Pa (Seminoles.com) – In the weeks leading up the 2019-20 season, Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton has said that the Seminoles’ upcoming schedule is the toughest they’ve had in his 18 years on the job.
The schedule-makers certainly wasted no time in proving him right.
In addition to playing 20 games within the Atlantic Coast Conference for the first time, the Seminoles will also begin their season against an ACC opponent for the first time – and on the road, at that.
That happens Wednesday, when FSU visits Pittsburgh’s Petersen Events Center. And things hardly get any easier from there. The Seminoles then visit No. 6 Florida on Sunday before returning for their home opener against Western Carolina on November 15.
With games like that from the outset, FSU fans won’t have to wait long to get a feel for a new-look team that has a few key veterans but also a handful of newcomers.
Hamilton, though, cautioned against reading too much into the early outcomes – whether they’re in FSU’s favor or not.
“It’s so early,” he said. “You’ve just got to take it for whatever it is. There’s no doubt that we’re still developing. Every team in the country is still trying to find themselves. Especially teams who don’t have a bunch of veterans returning.”
Florida State falls into that category. While the Seminoles are still glad to have Trent Forrest (9.3 PPG, 138 assists) and M.J. Walker (7.5 PPG) back in the fold, and they’re excited to see what steps sophomore Devin Vassell takes in Year 2, they’ve also got to adjust to life without their top two leading scorers from a year ago.
All told, Hamilton expects to see as many as three new starters on Wednesday. Vassell and RaiQuan Gray played supporting roles during last year’s run to the NCAA Sweet 16, while Dominik Olejniczak – the presumed frontrunner at center – has experience, just not at Florida State.
He’s a fifth-year senior who transferred to Florida State after graduating from Mississippi.
“We have six new guys we’re trying to integrate,” Hamilton said, noting that the Seminoles have dealt with a rash of minor injuries throughout the preseason that have limited their flexibility in practice.
“You really don’t know where you are,” he added. “You play a couple exhibition games, you go through that part of it, and it’s hard to determine where you are. That’s why you normally try to play some less important games early, to try to get a feel for your team.
“Right now, we’re just jumping out of the frying pan and right into the fire.”
Hamilton’s counterpart, Jeff Capel, feels about the same.
“For a coach, it’s like a nightmare,” he told reporters. “You’re constantly questioning, are you prepared? Have you done enough?”
Still, after a few years looking up from the bottom of the ACC standings, Pitt seems poised to break through in Capel’s second year at the helm.
That’s thanks in large part to the sophomore guard combo of Xavier Johnson and Trey McGowans, who were among the ACC’s biggest surprises last year.
Johnson averaged 15.5 points and 4.5 rebounds per game on his way to ACC All-Freshman honors, and McGowens became the first freshman in Pitt history to score 30-plus points in multiple games.
The Panthers also have the confidence that comes in knowing they beat the Seminoles earlier this year, and that they’re 1-8 all-time against FSU when playing in Pittsburgh.
Hamilton believes that that, combined with a preseason international tour that allowed the Panthers the benefit of some extra practice and team-building, will make for a sharp opponent.
“It’s a team that obviously has a tremendous amount of confidence,” he said, “because they were successful against us last year.”
Then again, the Seminoles are confident, too, even without former stars Terance Mann and Mfiondu Kabengele.
Forrest should be an All-ACC candidate as a senior, and, if Walker takes the expected jump that comes in his third year with the program, he could be among the league’s best, too.
Throw in a promising supporting cast of first- and second-year players – as well as the winning culture that comes after three consecutive NCAA tournament appearances and back-to-back runs to the second weekend – and it’s easy to see why the Seminoles are embracing the early challenges ahead.
And the opportunity to address a few doubters who think FSU is due for a step backward.
“We feel like we’ve got to prove a point,” Vassell said. “Over the last two years, we went to the Elite Eight, the Sweet 16, but we still haven’t really gotten our respect in being in the Top 25 and everything. …
“I just feel like we’re ready to show everybody who we are.”