Don't look now, but the Florida State basketball team--winners of four of their last six games--appears to be rounding into form. All year long we have suggested that FSU's best basketball could be played in February and March. Not only is that a calling card of Leonard Hamilton teams, it's also the product of having a team with so many new faces playing key roles. And in the win over Clemson on Saturday afternoon, the Noles displayed all the signs of a team capable of playing meaningful basketball in March.
Tenacious defense? Check. As Rogner pointed out, FSU held the Tigers to just .88 points per possession. And honestly, if not for shooting 17-21 from the FT line (nearly 10% above their season average), it would have been even worse. The Noles held Clemson to 33.3% shooting from the field--including 29.4% in the second half--and forced a turnover on over 24% of the Tiger's possessions. After the game, the coaches agreed.
"They outplayed us today," Clemson head coach Brad Brownell said. "They played at a very high level."
Leonard Hamilton said it was the first game that his team didn't take a possession off and felt the energy level was as high as it's been all year. Hamilton also credited the team for maintaining defensive position--something they did not do in the first game against Clemson--and not gambling and diving for steals so much.
Quality depth? Check. Freshmen sensations Dwayne Bacon and Malik Beasley still led the team in scoring, combining for 37 points on 15-28 shooting, but it was the contributions from the bench that arguably were the difference in the game. Devon Bookert drew heaps of praise from players and coaches after the game, and it was well-deserved. The senior from Alaska stuffed the stat sheet with 9 points, 5 rebounds, 5 assists (led the team) to just 1 turnover, and 3 steals. Benjie Bell, looking as confident as he has in his first season at FSU, finally took--and made--several open threes, played tremendous defense, and got the crowd into a frenzy with an ally oop to Malik Beasley.
Other contributions from the bench included 3 blocks from Chris Koumadje, 6 big rebounds and 2 blocks from Jarquez Smith, and a couple of steals plus a sweet offensive rebound put back by Terance Mann. Basketball is a grind. As Brownell said after the game, this isn't football. It's a long season and you can't play 30 great games in a row. Teams who succeed in March very often do so with major contributions from the bench (see Allen, Grayson from last year's Final Four).
Solid offensive rebounding? Check. The Seminoles rebounding 35% of their own misses, 5% over the D1 average. Bacon led the way with 3 offensive boards.
Perimeter shooting? Check. FSU only attempted 12 threes, but making nearly 42% of them kept the zone defense of Clemson spread out, allowing FSU to find gaps and work the short corner. Benji Bell, who went 2-2 from deep, was singled out by Brownell after the game for the way he impacted the game at crucial times with his deep shooting. Coach Hamilton said that his assistants have been encouraging him to give Bell more minutes, and that Benji responded well to the opportunity given.
Freshmen maturing and everyone buying in? Check. Teams evolve. Lessons learned in December hopefully make you better in March. That appears to be occurring with the Seminoles. It was evident with the eye test on Saturday, and Hamilton confirmed it after the game. When I asked about Bacon's effectiveness in the short corner, Hamilton said those opportunities have been part of the game plan all season, and have been there in most games. But the guys are only recently having the courage to trust what they see, get into the gaps on time, and be decisive with their ball movement.
"That's part of the offense that's been there since the beginning of the season," Hamilton said of Bacon's success in the short corner. "We have not done a very good job executing it...penetrate the gap, sprint to the short corner...today they bought in a little better."
Now, looking like an NCAA Tournament team is not the same thing as being an NCAA Tourney team. But it's certainly the first step. The key for this maturing team is finding a way to consistently play with this level of effort and execution. As solid as the play was on Saturday, FSU has to turn around in 48 hours and face off against Cat Barber--the leading scorer in the ACC--and a talented NC State Wolfpack team that just took it to Miami. In this league there just aren't any nights off. We'll see tomorrow if the team can follow-up the impressive performance with another step forward.
After the game, I caught up with Boris Bojanovsky and Benji Bell on how they handle such a quick turnaround, the improved effort and defense of the team, what other teams in college basketball they watch, and more.