Covering basketball can be hectic, as there are typically two games per week, plus two recruiting signing periods which roughly correspond with the beginning and the end of the season. But with finals week upon us, we've a break to catch our breath. So now is as good a time as any to summarize some early season thoughts about this team.
As a reminder of where I'm coming from, I predicted prior to the season that this team would finish the regular season 19-11 (10-8), with an offense that would range somewhere between 30th-70th nationally, and a defense which would range between 20th-70th.
1. They're right where I thought they'd be
The Noles (5-2) have neither been a disappointment nor have then exceeded expectations. I figured three losses in the out-of-conference schedule, and with five ooc games remaining, FSU's win shares are 4.03 per the current lines at kenpom.
Florida State's offense is currently rated No. 45 in the nation, while their defense is rated No. 30. If FSU can get through the next four unscathed - Mississippi State is the main potential stumbling block - then the Noles will travel to Gainesville with a chance to get ahead of schedule.
2. They've been playing fast...
In the season preview I highlighted the need for this team to get into transition. Last season, 23% of FSU's shot attempts came in transition. A goal of 30% seemed like a solid gain, but FSU has been even faster than that. To date, 34.5% of their shots have come in transition. When FSU attempts a 3-pointer in transition, they've made 44.1% of their attempts. Following a rebound and shooting after more than 10 seconds have elapsed drops that to 31.0%.
3. ...but they're not playing fast enough
Florida State's average offensive possession length has been 15.6 seconds, which is the 45th most uptempo team in the nation, and 2nd in the ACC. And compared to last year when FSU was 105th nationally, that's great. With more talent FSU is better able to find shots.
But it's not that fast for a Coach Hamilton team. When FSU won the ACC, the Noles offense was the 41st most uptempo in the nation. The prior year (Sweet 16), the offense was 31st in tempo. That's where I'd like to see this team get to. I'll gladly accept the occasional 15' pull up jumpers three or four seconds into the possession if it means that the shot is coming off an attempt to push the tempo. When Coach Hamilton teams are at their best, they wear opponents down, making it difficult for them to execute late in the game.
The key to playing fast on offense is playing efficiently on defense.
4. The transition defense has been bad
The Seminoles defense is ranked 30th nationally, so they're obviously doing some things well. Their length and athleticism has given teams fits, especially with Boris Bojanovsky on the back end. The team has also rebounded well, and is currently on pace to be the best defensive rebounding team in Ham's 14-year tenure.
Where the defense has been exposed is in transition. FSU's opponents have an insane eFG% of 71.2% in transition (62% on 2s and 49% on 3s).
Coach Hamilton loves to crash the offensive boards, which puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the defense should they not be successful at grabbing a rebound. That's not going to change. That's an integral part of the offense (see Terance Mann's putback dunk to help seal the game vs VCU).
Improving the transition defense is partially scheme (knowing everyone's responsibility within the flow of the game), and partially effort.
Being easy to score on quickly (and difficult to score on late in the clock) means that everyone is going to be looking for leak outs against the Noles. Sure enough, the average defensive possession for FSU is just 16.0 seconds, which is the 47th quickest in the nation. Back when FSU had consistently elite defenses, that rating was between 250 and 325. The ideal possessions are ones where Florida State scores in transition, and then drops back into a rock fight on the other end.
5. Malik Beasley has exceeded expectations
Every year during his high school career the evaluations on Malik Beasley came back with comments about how he crept under the radar, and that he was better than expected. Every year. Still - even knowing that - I allowed him to creep under the radar, and hey, he's better than expected. Who could have predicted that?!
He's been efficient. His effort is good. He really understands how to play the game, and it doesn't hurt that he can absolutely fly.
Eventually, his role will be in the Toney Douglas, Michael Snaer, Aaron Thomas realm where he'll be expected to shut down the opposing point guard. Nothing can disrupt an offense like someone with NBA size and athleticism hounding your point guard for 94-feet. He has the size, the athleticism, and the effort level. Now he just needs the understanding, as well as consistent positional defense played behind him.
6. The other newcomers are in-line with expecations
Dwayne Bacon leads the team in "wow" moments, as he can do things that most players just can't do. But his effort level needs to improve for him to become that consistent elite threat that FSU needs. Of course, he's the 4th highest scoring freshman in the nation, so saying he is just "in-line with expectations" shows how much we expected of him in the first place. Terance Mann has shown flashes of his talent level, and like Bacon will take some time to become consistent enough for coaches to trust. Benji Bell still needs time to make the adjustment to Division I, and Christ Koumadje has flashed athleticism but is still learning the game and needs to put on a lot of weight.
7. Xavier Rathan-Mayes is the key to the team
FSU has a lot of pieces. They have guys who can shoot, guys who can slash, and plenty of guys who can play above the rim. They have the players for a good, but not great, defense. They can rebound. They can push tempo. There is some depth.
And then there is XRM.
Coaches and point guards have a special relationship, and it's clear that Coach Hamilton is taking the reins off of XRM. If you don't believe me, watch how much he screams at him during the games. Fans often take this as a bad sign, but that's not necessarily correct. Ham is expecting him to be the coach on the floor, and he's pushing him to become just that.
On good nights, XRM's role isn't that difficult. He's gifted at getting inside a defense, and once there he just needs to set up his teammates. So far he has assisted on 32.9% of buckets when he's on the floor, which is the highest rate in the ACC. Defensively, he needs to be better, but so does everyone else. XRM reminds me of Ian Miller's time at FSU. Miller, early in his career, was a liability on defense. He didn't fight through screens. He took too many plays off. He gambled when it wasn't wise. But as his career advanced he quietly became a solid defender. XRM is going through the same progression.
So set up his teammates. Play defense. Get some wins.
But it's the tough nights where his real value is needed. Against VCU, when his teammates were struggling to score, XRM came through with an efficient 23 points and iced the game late with free throws. Beginning on December 29th, the schedule suddenly becomes one where tough nights will be a regular occurrence. Starting with Florida State's road game at Florida, the Noles will play 19 regular season games, and 16 of those will be against teams rated 75 or better. Eight of those 16 are against teams ranked in Pomeroy's top 30.
To navigate those waters, the team needs XRM to be that guy.