On Monday Chris Singleton underwent surgery to repair the 5th metatarsal in his right foot. No timetable for his return has been announced, but likely the absolute minimum is three weeks, meaning FSU will have to play without him for the rest of the regular season if not the year. Obviously replacing a player a his caliber will be difficult, and unfortunately our hopes at a 3rd consecutive NCAA Tournament appearance hinge on how well coach Leonard Hamilton can do that.
Many FSU fans have not-so-fond memories of the 2006-07 season when a February injury to Toney Douglas sent reeling a Seminole team that had been close to a lock for the Tournament. Instead Al Thornton’s senior year ended in the NIT. Singleton isn’t a senior, but this is almost guaranteed to be his final year, so are he and Derwin Kitchen going to finish their FSU careers in the Dance?
After the break I’ll look at what Ham has to replace.
Defense: Chris Singleton is the best defensive player in the ACC. Unless he’s penalized for his injury he’ll become the 2nd ever player to be twice named the ACC Defensive Player of the Year. At 6’9" he’s a rare player who can guard any 2, 3 or 4 in the conference, as well as most 5s and some of the 1s. And he does this without having elite lateral speed. He has remarkable foot work, balance, anticipation and perhaps the quickest hands of any college big man. He’s often used by Leonard Hamilton to shut down an opposing scorer (see 1st half of Duke game), but just as often he’s assigned to a lesser talent so that he can play off that player and use his anticipation and length to menace passing lanes and cause havoc. One-on-one he’s intuitive and due to exceptional footwork rarely gets beat on the wrong side – he always knows where his help is and funnels his man toward it. And he plays with consistent intensity. He buys FSU numerous possessions each game through his rebounding, blocked shots and steals.
To put it simply, he can’t be replaced. In his absence it’s essential that the trio of Bernard James, Terrance Shannon and Okaro White stay healthy and out of foul trouble. Losing any one of those players severely limits our options on defense (see final 10 minutes of Virginia game) as there aren’t many ACC teams where we can afford to have James plus one of Jon Kreft or Xavier Gibson on the floor at the same time. Kreft and the still hobbled Gibson simply don’t have the speed to properly defend screens on the perimeter and still get back to defend the paint. There are complex switches a coach can utilize to counter these plays, but implementing them 11 games into the conference season isn’t ideal. Foul trouble will push us into 3 and 4 guard sets which are easy to attack.
Offense: The following table shows our top players in terms of offensive rating, and according to this metric Singleton is our 3rd most effective player:
In addition to being our best 3-point shooter, he’s also adept at drawing fouls and getting to the line. He’s a good shooter with solid mechanics when he has his feet set (not so much off the dribble), and overall has shown a much more nuanced offensive game this season than he did in his first two years. He plays inside more, with 67% of his shots coming from inside the arc this year, compared to 57% his 1st two. Terrance Shannon doesn’t have anywhere near the offensive game that Singleton does, but Okaro White is fairly productive. The problem is that White can’t hit the 3-ball, which will further compress the defense. Instead he’s a very good offensive rebounder who can also draw fouls. Defenses are going to key on Derwin Kitchen and whoever is playing the post, which likely means - that in addition to White – the players that need to step up are Michael Snaer, Deividas Dulkys and Ian Miller. Snaer needs to continue slashing to the lane like he did vs Virginia, Dulkys needs to re-find his stroke, and Miller needs to stop settling for 3s and start putting pressure near the rim. Our myriad of offensive problems aren’t going to be fixed this late in the season, so we can only hope that individuals understand their roles in helping to overcome Singleton’s loss. If any single player tries to take it upon himself, we’re likely doomed.
FSUs Tourney Resume: In 2007 Toney Douglas suffered a hand injury and the Seminoles went 1-5 in ACC play without him. Prior to that they’d done everything right – the schedule, for once, looked like one built specifically to enhance our RPI, we had a marquee win against top ranked Florida, there were no bad losses, and we were 5-4 in what was hands down the strongest conference in the country. FSU went 2-0 after his return before being bounced in the conference Semis by a dominant UNC team. All 7 ACC teams which finished at least 8-8 made the tourney. FSU finished 7-9, and despite an RPI of 41 and promises that Toney’s injury would be taken into account, FSU was left out. Then in 2009 Patty Mills of 18-1 St. Mary’s injured his hand and missed the 2nd half of conference play. He returned in time for the conference tourney, but was clearly rusty, and St. Mary’s was denied a trip to the NCAAs because their star hadn’t proved he was ready.
So what do these examples mean for the Seminoles’ tourney hopes? Basically, the selection committee can do whatever they want, and they don’t have to answer to anyone. But they’ve demonstrated that you’re screwed due to injuries pretty much regardless of the circumstances (several more examples besides the above two). Prior to Singleton’s injury all but 1 of the bracketologists I asked said that FSU was a lock at 11-5. Only one team in ACC history has been left out with more than 9 wins (VTech last year), and they had a weaker non-conference schedule than we do this year, and a higher RPI. Still, with Singleton, 10-6 would have been a crap shoot dependent on how we performed in the conference tournament. But now we have to prove that we’re either A) just as good without Chris, or B) can get Chris back and in game shape in time to showcase him in the ACC Tournament. Otherwise, unless multiple bubble teams suddenly tank, we’ll be sweating at 11-5 come Selection Sunday, and sent to the NIT at 10-6.