One possession. So many basketball games come down to one possession. FSU played in seven such games last year. The most memorable of those also happened in the span of a week and decided FSU's tourney fate - vs Michigan and at Florida. There were 131 possessions in those two November games and if you would have changed just one from bad to good, then FSU would have been in the 4-letter tourney, as Aaron Thomas called it, instead of the 3-letter one.
For FSU's keys to this season all we need to look at is one possession. Inside that possession you'll find everything you need to know. We'll even start at the opening tip (12 days from now, if you're counting). Since Bernard James graduated FSU hasn't won many tips, so we'll assume that the other guys have the ball. Which brings us to the first of five keys for a successful year.
STOP THE BUNNIES
"We are not going to play them; they are going to play us." - Hank Iba
Good Leonard Hamilton teams are not fun to play against. They're bigger than you. They're more physical. They try harder. His specialty as a coach is turning a bunch of AAU ballers into a well-defined unit that gains satisfaction by making the other team miserable.
His defensive philosophy is complex, but it can be boiled down to a few guiding maxims. He uses a big guard to pressure the ball handler 30' from the basket and has quick players on the wing to jump passing lanes. He fronts the post - he always fronts the post (which will be critical in the 2nd key to the season) - making passes into the interior as tough as they can be. And the closer the ball gets to the basket, the more he attacks. It is a defense designed to take away easy shots.
When FSU made a 4-year run to the NCAAs his defenses were ranked 7th, 3rd, 1st, and 13th out of 350 Division I teams. Their average defensive 2-pt% allowed was 7th nationally.
If you are wondering what that looked like, here is a cut which shows just about everything you need to know about man-to-man defense. Positioning, on-time switches, effort - and run by backups.
But in the year which followed (when the current juniors were freshmen), that rating plummeted. FSU was an unbelievable 157th in defensive 2-pt%. I think I saw more opponent layups in that season than in the previous four seasons combined.
Last year, things improved. FSU was 19th in defensive 2-pt%. Not great by FSU standards, but much better.
Now FSU has six players who have all been in the program at least three years, and if they want to get back to the tourney than they need to play defense. The Noles have three seven footers to rotate in the middle. They have experienced guards as well as one of the most versatile players in the conference in 6-8 Montay Brandon. Jay Bilas just picked Aaron Thomas to his 2nd Team Defense for the nation. The parts are there.
Expect Ham to stick to his man-to-man primarily, but he'll also mix in some zone. It was clear last season that the young players didn't understand the zone, but with another year in the system we can only hope that the light has come on. In FSU's ACC Championship season FSU mixed defenses as much as I've seen, and that was doable because of the team's experience. Well, this is now an experienced team, and it's time for them to start playing like one. Ham should be able to mix up his man-to-man coverages. He should be able to mix up his zones. Don't be surprised if he tinkers with a 3-2 zone with Kiel Turpin and Boris Bojanovsky on the back line.
In the early games that will be something to look for. How much can Ham mix it up on defense?
In the four seasons mentioned above, FSU's rank in conference-only games was 1st, 1st, 2nd, and 1st in defensive 2pt%. That's the bar for where this team needs to be by the time conference season rolls around.