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Observations from FSU basketball’s exhibition win over Southeastern

A good start for the ‘Nole cagers.

Michael Ojo wins the tip.

First of all, settle down-- it’s an exhibition. A glorified scrimmage. And it wasn’t even against a lowly directional school; it was against a double-directional school (which is, evidently, southeast of something). That said, the ‘Noles nevertheless showed some impressive early signs in routing the Southeastern Fire by a final score of 119-58.

Starting three guards (Dwayne Bacon, Xavier Rathan-Mayes, Terance Mann), a forward (Jonathan Isaac), and a center (Michael Ojo), one thing became apparent from the opening tip: this team wants to play at a lightning-fast pace. When not being fouled or committing a turnover, and excluding throwaway possessions at the end of each half, FSU took its first shot within ten seconds on 46 of 64 possessions— 72% of them. And get this: when I asked Florida State Head Coach Leonard Hamilton if the pace was fast enough, he admitted to being disappointed by how the ‘Noles slowed down some when the Fire went to zone defense in the second half, a half in went FSU hoisted its first shot within 10 seconds more than 75% of the time.

Hamilton was careful to point out that you cannot sustain that pace without capable depth, and the Seminoles showed that on Thursday as well. The first subs were Chris Koumadje, CJ Walker, PJ Savoy, and Trent Forrest, and Phil Cofer checked in as well to round out Florida State’s 10-man rotation while leading FSU with 20 points. Hamilton kept his team fresh by rotating heavily, as no player logged more than 22 minutes. Hamilton told me that Jarquez Smith sat out with an ankle injury, but he expects him back soon, and he’ll add yet another experienced big body — and five more fouls — to the rotation.

In the half-court game, FSU has transitioned from using a power forward to using a solo-post spread attack, in which Hamilton wants the other four players all to be capable of bringing the ball up the court. When the ‘Noles set up, they moved well away from the ball, and I was impressed with how they made the extra pass to set up better angles for entries into the post, where the Seminole bigs used their stark size advantage (SEU’s tallest player is 6-9) to carve out excellent position, often a drop step away from the basket and a dunk. On the night, the Seminoles had 28 assists on 44 field goals and wound up shooting 64%. What’s more, they look like they enjoy passing. After an impressive alley-oop, Bacon strutted back down the court— and he wasn’t the dunker, he was the passer. Chris Koumadje played aggressively but also intelligently while showing off a smooth little jump hook that he hit on both attempts. That shot isn’t going to get blocked unless the opposition has a defender sitting on the hoop— and I’m pretty sure that’s illegal.

Continuing with the center position at the offensive end, Ojo got his fourth foul on the first play of the second half, something the ‘Noles probably could have avoided with Smith’s services. However, Ojo looked much more comfortable offensively, finding space nicely and catching everything that came his way. In 15 minutes of action, he had 14 points and 13 rebounds.

Florida State still needs to do better to find soft spots against the aforementioned zone defense, but again, its effective passing moved the ball quickly to open shooters, and the ‘Noles hit on 34.8% of their attempts from beyond the arc. As we expected, Savoy looks to be FSU’s leading sniper, as he made three of eight from downtown. Bacon employed what looks to be a more compact stroke to drain three of five three-pointers.

Nearly absent from the shooting roles was Rathan-Mayes, who made one of just two attempts, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. XRM was much more focused on running the offense and distributing, and he finished with a game-high eight assists and only two turnovers. Frosh point-guard Walker has to clean up his game some, as he authored six turnovers to just one assist, but he got to the basket well and contributed nine points and some solid verbal leadership. Hamilton also expressed confidence in Forest being able to run the point too, which is no surprise— the latter is a heady player who seems to diagnose on the fly quite nicely.

Defensively, FSU’s aim is to create a chaotic environment to facilitate its breakneck offensive pace. They picked up SEU in full-court man-to-man defense, while trapping on a few occasions. In the half-court, the Seminoles denied passing lanes well away from the basket, employing their length to try for deflections to trigger fast breaks the other way. They finished with 10 steals, four coming from Forest, and eight blocks (Koumadje had three). I thought XRM’s energy and leadership set the tone on the defensive side of the ball, as he twice got a hand on a dribble and went diving after the deflection, once crashing into the press table at mid-court in the second half of a blowout exhibition. That’s a fantastic example for younger players.

The Fire got some open looks, but that’s going to happen when you strive to create havoc on defense, as will some offensive rebounds, and the Seminoles conceded 11. FSU does not want to let teams possess the ball and slow things down. The ‘Noles want disarray, and their ability to influence tempo will be a major storyline this season. That said, the Seminoles’ length makes for quicker recoveries, and Southeastern shot just 28.6% from the floor. When Florida State gets the opposing offense discombobulated, and the FSU offense gets moving, it’s really quite a show: in about five minutes near the end of the first half, the ‘Noles went on a 21-0 run.

Again, we’re not going to draw too many conclusions about this team from an exhibition win over SEU, but there was a lot to like at The Tuck on Thursday. Isaac’s double-double saw him place second on the team in points (17) and rebounds (11). But despite the seemingly well-earned hype Isaac’s received, this looks to be a team, given the style of play it prefers, that will succeed only as a unit—so seeing seven players register double-digit points is quite encouraging; and if everyone continues to buy in on defense, look out.