Yesterday we previewed the offense. Today, it's the defense.
Coach Hamilton calls defense the "great equalizer." It's difficult to recruit a non-stop stream of NBA players like Duke and UNC are able to do, but anyone can play defense.
Gap defenses are all the rage these days, but Coach has stuck to his demanding deny principles. To run his defense he needs long, uber-athletic guards and wings that can help take away drives and still be quick enough to recover on 3-pt shooters. In the post he needs active bigs who are quick enough to front their opponent, and long enough to make lobs over the top an ill-advised thing. When lobs happen, the baseline defenders swarm to the ball.
The defense seeks an advantage in split-second intervals. He preaches no-direct-passes. Every pass the opponent makes should be a bounce pass or a lob. The slower delivery gives the defense that much more time to react. There is pressure on the ball. There is pressure on the passing lanes. And the vertical game should be denied.
So with that in mind, why has FSU's defense been so terrible?
In FSU's recent 4-year NCAA run, the defense ranked 7, 3, 1, and 13 out of ~350 Division I teams. In the three years which followed it ranked 190, 57, and 75.
Only four at large teams made the dance last year with a defense ranked as poorly as the Noles (75+), and all four of those teams had top 25 offenses.
The problems were all over the place. Montay Brandon and Devon Bookert had trouble staying in front of quicker guards. Xavier Rathan-Mayes had a bad habit of getting hung up in traffic. The rotation of the 4s was late or invisible, and the bigs were foul prone.
But mostly the problem was depth. By the end of the year the guards were playing way too many minutes. There wasn't another option. Bookert had a 5-game stretch where he got a total of 6-minutes of rest.
The defense is so demanding, and so physical, that it can't be played with tired legs. If Aaron Thomas hadn't gotten himself kicked out and had Robbie Berwick stayed healthy, it would have been a very different season.
Now the team has depth. It's on a knife's edge with early injuries at this point, but the perimeter rotation is still deep.
There are also some high caliber athletes added to that depth. Dwayne Bacon, Terance Mann, Malik Beasley, and Benji Bell all have the tools to be plus defenders. The wildcard will be how quickly they pick it up.
The other wildcard is rebounding. Getting stops are great, but you have to get the board for it to mean something. Since our bigs front their man, it puts them out of place for rebounds, so that will always be a weakness of the system.
And last year's team was okay at grabbing defensive boards. They were certainly better than the previous two iterations of the roster which allowed a steady stream of offensive rebounds. But with no great rebounders on the team, and Michael Ojo out for a while, the team is going to have to all step up their rebounding games. Part of that is skill and technique, and part of that is effort.
If this team ends up in the top half of the conference and in the Dance, then it likely means that the players took it upon themselves to make that rebounding effort.
As a whole, I think there's a very good chance that the team will be better than last year's No. 75 defense. I think the low end of this roster - even with all the new players - is slightly better than that. Let's call that low end 70. But how good is the high end? I don't think top-10 is possible, but somewhere around 20 is.
If you read the offense preview, then you know this squad will have a pretty good seed in the dance if their defense really is 20th. If it's on the other end of their spectrum, there is a good chance they'll be NIT bound.
Need a reminder of what elite FSU defenses look like? Here is Virginia Tech unable to ever get the ball inside the 3-point line.
The season tips Sunday, 3 PM, from the Tuck.