The Sport Within a Sport

Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

Florida State did what they had to do Sunday Night and earned a comfortable win over an underachieving Georgia Tech team. Unfortunately, my cell phone did not do what it needed to do and had a bit of a malfunction while doing interviews. As a result I have some quotes and will have to paraphrase for others.

But this article will largely focus not on what FSU needs to do down the stretch to make the Big Dance (as that horse is starting to look a little ill), but rather the little things that occur during a season—or even before the season—that end up making big differences. More on that in a moment. First, here are some "quotes."

Georgia Tech Coach Brian Gregory:

"When you play Florida State you have to play with great toughness and composure, and I thought there were stretches where we showed that. But not enough."

"They are clearly an NCAAT caliber team. And they can probably win a couple games with their size and athleticism."

"When you play Florida State…you’re gonna have to guard 368 ball screens a game and those ball screens are being set by pretty big guys."

"Obviously {Ian Miller] is playing at a very high level right now."

In the paraphrase category, Coach Gregory spoke about how they wanted to zone us more, but when a guy like Devon Bookert is on and gives FSU a second shooter on the outside, it really becomes a difficult proposition to defend this offense. The outside shots spread out the defense, which allows guys like Aaron Thomas, (whom he has watched play since Thomas was 15 in Cincinnati) Montay Brandon, and Okaro White to get into the paint and finish at the rim.

He also talked about how big of a difference a healthy Ian Miller would have made to last year’s team and how having a young team (like GT and FSU) is so much about the guys learning what it takes to win in this league night in and night out.

Florida State Coach Leonard Hamilton:

"I thought we defended really well, I thought we executed really well, and it appeared that we still had a hard time pulling away from them…It shows the caliber of play that you face night in and night out when you play in the ACC."

"We had some good shots, made the extra pass and had some great shots."

"We worked very hard [in practice this week] at not reaching and grabbing…I thought we did a decent job contesting without fouling."

"I think we are doing a much better job of moving the ball and then attacking off the dribble."

"[Bookert has] shown the enthusiasm in practice…maybe coming out of his shell a little bit."

"I’m interested in seeing how we are going to respond to the mental and emotional challenge we have now."

"We are in a position where we got to keep playing well…there is a sense of urgency in everyone."

"Tournament conversation has become a sport."

Ham elaborated on Devon Bookert, saying he’s been more vocal of late and that he, along with the whole sophomore class, seem to really be maturing at the right time. He’s hoping this is the start of a tradition of seniors like Okaro passing down the torch to the younger guys about what it takes to be successful in this league.

He also spoke at length about how much they have had to practice playing defense without fouling with the new rules. That he has pulled Okaro aside and talked with him about not being able to make every play and living to see another possession but just making sure they stay on the court.

Montay Brandon

The sophomore who is really coming on late in the season talked about growing as a player and a team. How everyone is playing to their specific talents and all pulling their weight. Last year the team just relied on Michael Snaer to bail them out, but this year everyone knows they need to bring it and play their role.

Okaro White

The senior discussed how big it is to have multiple shooters hitting from outside, allowing him to do more damage in the paint. Focused a ton on not reaching and not trying to contest every play, because he knows he has to stay on the court and out of foul trouble. Can't let his team down by trying to do too much. Said he has never won a game in BC and the last time they went up there they lost as a big favorite, so he won't let the guys overlook them.

Devon Bookert

Thinks better communication has been a big part of the better play. The more they talk on the court the fewer mistakes they make on both ends. Said he knows some of that is on him and he has tried to do a better job of speaking up.

The Sport Within a Sport:

Hamilton’s last quote—"Tournament conversation has become a sport"—is the subject of this next section. Indeed, come late February and early March, discussion regarding who is on the bubble and who is in line for a 1 seed gets more airtime than the actual games. Some people’s entire job is to track the bubble and the bracket.

And when you’re squarely on the bubble like FSU is, it seems like every result across the country makes a difference in the at-large chances. And in truth, it probably does.

But the reality is, bubble teams aren’t made in late February. Nearly every bubble team from a major conference share three things in common:

1. They have a couple good wins

2. They have a couple head scratching losses

3. Just one or two slight changes along the way and they would be off the bubble—either safely in the Dance or gearing up for the NIT.

Just how slight are we talking? How about one more rebound, one less late game turnover, or even simply not playing an early season game.

Let’s use FSU as the example, since this is Tomahawk Nation after all. The Noles’ resume currently looks like this (all RPI numbers courtesy of rpiforecast.com):

Record: 17-11

RPI: 57

SOS: 45

OOC SOS: 104

Record against top 25: 2-6

Record against top 50: 3-7

Record against top 100: 5-10

Record against Sub-100: 12-1

Clearly, this is a resume that screams bubble. But thanks to the nifty website at rpiforecast, you can play God and approximate what any team’s RPI would be with any set of results. Play with this feature for just a few minutes and you quickly see why—despite what critics of college basketball would have you believe—every game truly does matter.

Scenario One: The "One Less Turnover" Game

With 3:01 to play in the game against Michigan (RPI number 12) FSU led 67-59 and Okaro White hauled down a defensive rebound off a missed Michigan 3-pointer. FSU had a win probability of over 90%. Then Montay Brandon turned it over. Then Aaron Thomas dribbled off his foot out of bounds. Then Okaro White turned it over. The Michigan made a layup with 8 seconds left and forced OT, where a young, rattled FSU team would eventually lose by two. FSU only had 13 turnovers in a 71-possession game, which is pretty good. But 5 came in the final 4 minutes of regulation. Ouch.

Ever asked yourself what FSU’s RPI would be like had we not given that game away? Well wonder no more. The Noles’ RPI jumps to 46. Plus, FSU improves to 3-5 against the top 25 of the RPI. These two improvements would likely have FSU on the right side of the bubble, even if we lost to Syracuse.

Scenario Two: "One More rebound"

FSU trailed UF (RPI #3) for most of the game in Gainesville. But a gutsy performance in the second half saw the Noles tied with less than 30 seconds to play. FSU played great defense, forced a miss, and then saw a 50-50 ball bounce UF’s way. The play was made worse when the Noles fouled, sending UF to the free throw line, and the Gators escaped with a 1 point win.

How would FSU’s RPI look with a road win against UF? Just adding a win against the Gators, FSU’s RPI again jumps to 46. Add a win against UF and Michigan, and the Noles RPI moves up to 36. Just as important, FSU would then sport a 4-4 record against the top 25, with a marquee road win to boot, making the Noles somewhere around a 6 or 7 seed.

Scenario Three: "Ham’s Alma Mater"

In the third game of the year, FSU played—and crushed—Tennessee-Martin. It was obviously a move to have a game against Coach Hamilton’s alma mater, a nice gesture to be sure. But was it too nice? Tennessee-Martin finished the season 6-23 and ranked 328th in the RPI. They were a terrible team who plays in a terrible conference. In short, they are a classic RPI killer. These are the kind of games that schools who schedule smart (aka, game the RPI) NEVER SCHEDULE.

So let’s pretend that FSU, in fact, never did schedule them. Yes, the Noles would lose a win, but their RPI would actually improve to 53. Moreover, the SOS would jump from 45 to 29! When you are living life on the bubble, that could literally be the difference between "last four in" and "last four out."

If we dropped the TN-Martin game, and also beat UF the RPI is 42 and SOS is 28. If all three scenarios occurred, Florida State’s RPI would be 33. One turnover, one rebound, and one terrible team. Difference between a 6 seed and below the cut-line.

And this doesn’t just affect bubble teams. The same principles apply to seed lines over the entire tournament. Playing a terrible team could be the difference between a 4 seed and a 5. And if you have ever filled out a March Madness bracket, you know how big a deal that could be.

The bottom line is, every game, every possession matters in college basketball.

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