The Florida State basketball season has hit crunch time, with FSU currently sitting at the 9/10 seed break in the latest S-Curve prediction. FSU has a couple of very winnable home games after playing four of the past five on the road. It starts tomorrow with Clemson (head on over after the National Title celebration), and in preparation we sat down with Ryan Kantor from Shakin the Southland. Make sure you check out my responses to his questions (and the "whiny" FSU fans I refer to are none of y'all. Promise).
TN: It's easy to be down on Clemson after back-to-back blowout losses. But Clemson, like FSU, is well ahead of where the experts thought they would be. What's the Clemson perspective on this? Is excitement building around this team?
STS: Clemson suffered ugly losses at Pittsburgh and at Chapel Hill in their last two contests. The blowout to Pitt was a reality check, but the loss at Chapel Hill is unacceptable and very upsetting to fans. It's not merely because we lost (we're used to losing in Chapel Hill). It's more so that the team played so poorly they never gave themselves a shot against a very vulnerable Tar Heel squad. We probably will not have another realistic opportunity to win up there for quite some time, so this was a golden opportunity wasted. In those losses, Clemson gave up a season-high 76 points to Pitt, and then a new season-high of 80 to UNC. It seems opposing coaches may have found some holes in the defense (slipping behind the post-defense). Hopefully Clemson has made the appropriate counter-adjustments this week.
Clemson is a bit ahead of where we expected them at this point of the season. I projected a 6-12 conference record and they look poised to top that, which is encouraging. Clemson will not lose any players to graduation after the season, and Brownell will supplement the roster with two solid recruits (Gabe DeVoe and four-star Donte Grantham). These are encouraging signs that Brownell is beginning to build a program much like the one Leonard Hamilton has fashioned at FSU, that is to say consistently competitive and post-season bound (FSU has made NIT or NCAA in eight straight seasons).
With Orange Bowl Champions gear just arrived by mail (yes, I know you have the real champions gear) and a 13th ranked baseball team about to hit the field, I think it's a bit hard for fans to get excited about a team fighting for possible NIT berth. With the big step forward I expect from this team next season, the temporary move to Greenville the following year, and a beautiful new look Littlejohn Coliseum the next, that will change.
TN: What about Brad Brownell? Clemson is now in season four of his tenure, so it's basically his players and his system. Is there a sense that Brownell is a potential long term solution for the Tigers?
STS: I think you'll find some divide on this question. I, for one, am a big supporter of what Brad Brownell is doing in building a consistent blue collar defensive team. I'm understanding of the constraints around him, but am looking at the next two recruiting classes to see if he is the answer. He has done a great job with the talent he has--remember he won a First Four game against UAB in 2010-11--but has done a poor job on the recruiting trail.
He landed his first big recruit a few months back with Donte Grantham choosing Clemson over Michigan. Gabe DeVoe is also a solid recruit as a scoring guard. If he can build on this in the next class--namely in the post--then yes, Brownell is the long term solution.
After the home loss to FSU earlier this season, some fans were ready for a change, however they quickly recanted following the win over Duke. With a loss in Tallahassee I expect them to be once again ready for a change, but regardless of their feelings, Brownell will almost surely be back next season. It'll be his ability to recruit ACC-caliber players that'll determine how long he is here and how successful he becomes.
TN: You guys lost Devin Booker, who was a stud, and the enigmatic Milton Jennings, and yet your defense has jumped from No. 53 to No. 14. How has this team (with no seniors) gotten that much better on the defensive side of things?
STS: There are three reasons this team has improved despite losing their two seniors: 1) The enormity of the losses was overrated2) The team chemistry has improved3) Individual players have improved
At the end of last season, Coach Brownell essentially said Booker was unwilling to take a charge and both seniors were hard to coach. Booker's offense is missed but, Landry Nnoko has filled the void defensively and is one of the best player development stories on the team. Milton Jennings posted a sub-100 offensive rating (Ortg) last season and probably should have been dismissed from the team following a mid-season drug arrest. His loss is mostly felt on the defensive glass where he was very effective.
This offseason, the team took a Summer trip to Italy where they played four Italian professional teams. After that trip, it seemed that everyone was talking about how this team grew closer during the experience. We heard encouraging stories about players becoming good friends off the court, team chemistry and camaraderie improving with the team now closer in age, and K.J. McDaniels growing into the leadership role that was previously held by the seniors. I think chemistry is a big part of good team defense and this factor shouldn't be overlooked.
Finally, we've seen some players really improve from last season. K.J. McDaniels has improved his jump shot and developed a baby hook that has been effective as a post-move. He's also increased his BLK% a shade from last season and is now blocking over 9% of the oppositions two-point looks while he is on the court. Rod Hall has improved ten-fold. His numbers are up across the board and he is playing his usual tough defense. Landry Nnoko, the new center replacing Booker, has done a good job defending the paint and blocking shots--excluding the UNC game. Jaron Blossomgame has returned from his leg injury and started most games (replacing Jennings), though Brownell will likely be intimidated by FSU's size and start the much less talented Josh Smith on Saturday.
Of course, coming off two brutal losses, it's hard to see the progress.
TN: K.J. McDaniels was solid in his first two seasons, but now he's playing really well. His rebounding %s are up, he suddenly can't miss from the FT line, and his usage is off the charts yet he's more efficient. Was this expected from him? Rod Hall is in the same boat, really bursting onto the scene as a junior. This seems highly encouraging for a young team, no?
STS: Yes, absolutely. Player development is always encouraging. K.J. McDaniels not only leads the team in points, blocks, and steals, but also rebounds. Landry Nnoko is raking in more boards on a per minute basis, but K.J. McDaniels is playing a huge role on the glass. His 7.1 RPG are nearly as much as the two players who have started at PF--Josh Smith and Jaron Blossomgame--combined. He's filled the void left by Milton Jennings in that regard, which has been tremendous.
I'm glad you mentioned Rod Hall, because his progression is a great player development story that should be highlighted. Hall's Ortg has improved from 92.2 last season to 120.1 this year. His role in the offensive has increased as he is now taking 15.9% of the shots while he is on the court compared to 12.9% last season. Even with more shots, he has improved his two-point FG% (.450 to .500) and three-point FG% (.222 to .387). Maybe most importantly, he's also become much more aggressive attacking the basket and as a result has drawn many more fouls (2.6 fouls per 40 mins last season to 3.7 fouls per 40 mins this season) and his FT% has increased by 16.8 percentage points. He's also getting more assists and fewer turnovers.
The problem, especially lately, has been that after these two we have Landry Nnoko (when he's not in foul trouble) and then a bunch of question marks.
Jaron Blossomgame is playing out of position in the post. He has shown flashes, but nothing consistent aside from solid offensive rebounding. Josh Smith has played at both post positions and has posted a remarkably poor 70.9 Ortg this season. Jordan Roper, a short but quick scoring guard, has struggled as of late, likely due to injury, while other shooters on the team have either transferred (Devin Coleman) or missed the entire season with injury (Patrick Rooks).
Adonis Filer has been effective as the back-up PG, and has the aggressiveness this team sorely needs, however he has been a turnover machine accounting for 29.1% of the team's turnovers while he is on the court. Finally, Demarcus Harrison, who started against UNC, still has not found his shot and holds an ugly eFG% of only 37.5%. He has done a good job drawing fouls and making free throws, but McDaniels and Hall need more than that, especially if he is going to start. The rest of the cast now needs to step up.
TN: Virginia Tech and Boston College are at the bottom of the ACC, yet those are the two best true road wins for Clemson this year. Is it just a sample size thing, or is Clemson really struggling in road games?
STS: I think it's been a little bit of both thus far. On the one hand, Clemson lost at Auburn and was non-competitive at Pittsburgh and UNC. That would seem to indicate that they're a poor road team. On the other, Clemson has only played four ACC road games. Pittsburgh is in the top 15 of the KenPom rankings and we don't win in Chapel Hill so the losses aren't too shocking. I don't expect Clemson to win road games at Syracuse, Pittsburgh, UNC, or the like. The true test of their road mettle will come in the last three road games of the year at Notre Dame, at Georgia Tech, and at Wake Forest. There are probably three or four more home wins on the schedule so taking one or two of those road games will make a huge difference come March.
TN: Finally, give me your score prediction, and let me know how the game will play out.
STS: KenPom gives Clemson a little better than a one-in-five chance in this one, which is probably fair. If we're unable to handle FSU's superior size or elect to combat it by starting some of our taller, less effective players, I don't think we'll fare well. If Clemson is to pull this one out, Nnoko and/or Blossomgame need to show up big. They cannot leave K.J. to handle all the rebounds himself. Rod Hall needs to attack the basket effectively and someone has to step up and make jump shots (Filer, Roper, or Harrison).
I don't think an upset is unthinkable (like I did at Pittsburgh). FSU's loss to NC State on Wednesday gives me a glimmer of hope, but also illustrates how tough it is to win on the road. If Brownell has made the right adjustments this week, then we should have a more competitive game than our last matchup, however, I won't call a Clemson win and expect a final score around 62-56 in Florida State's favor.