Last year Florida State was tasked with coming up with an encore to perhaps the best season in program history. While FSU fell short of their Final Four goals, the Noles did finish with a 25-8 (13-3 ACC) record and a trip to the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16. The Seminoles also appeared in the top 15 in the polls for every week of the season for the first time in program history. The Seminoles are ranked #12 in both the preseason AP and USA Today polls. This ranking puts them third in the ACC (Notre Dame and Louisville are higher in both polls). FSU's clear goal this season is to make the Final Four which would be a first in program history. Florida State has the pieces in place for a Final Four run but of course it will not be easy. Let's take a closer look at the Seminoles.
Last year the Noles had to grapple with depth issues all season as FSU only featured 10 available players on the roster. This season the Noles welcome the #7 recruiting class in the nation along with two eligible transfers who were both former top 50 recruits. Therefore even though FSU loses two starters in Adut Bulgak and Emiah Bingley depth will not be a weakness this year.
The first place to start an analysis of any basketball team is the point guard position and Florida State is blessed with one of the very best point guards in the nation. Fresh off of earning a silver medal in the Rio Olympics, Spanish national Leticia Romero (11.6pg, 4.6ag, 4.2rg) returns to Tallahassee for her senior season. Romero is the only player returning to college basketball who has an Olympic medal. She is one of the best players in the nation. However, to reach their goals this team needs Romero to return to at least her form of two years ago (11pg, 5.3ag, 5.3rg). As you can see her numbers last year declined a bit from her sophomore season. Her assist to turnover ratio also declined from 1.4 to 1.31. I think that part of the reason for her depressed assist numbers was that FSU had more talent around her in the Elite Eight season. There were also some bright spots from last season in that Romero's free throw percentage rose from 77.4 to 83.3. It would be better if she were a bit more assertive this year. Since she is such a good shooter the Noles would benefit if she got to the line more often. Also her 3pt average stayed relatively the same (.450 to .447) even though she took almost double the 3 pointers last year compared to her sophomore season. Shooting roughly 45% from three point range is fantastic (it translates to 67.5% inside the arc). Basically the Noles would benefit offensively if Romero looked for her shot a bit more. Even so, she is a pass first point guard so she will always look better with more talent around her which is good for Noles fans because there will be plenty in Tallahassee this year.
Romero's backcourt mate will be senior Brittany Brown (8.9pg, 5.7rg, 4.2ag). Brown's numbers last year were up across the board from her sophomore season (6.9pg, 4.5rg, 1.7ag). Brown is a dependable guard with exceptional quickness. That quickness allowed her to make the All-ACC defensive team last year. She also finished ninth in the nation in steals. However, Brown's greatest asset may be her ability to rebound from the guard position. She is an extremely quick leaper and her athleticism allows her to get her hands on many rebounds and loose balls. She has the ability to get to the basket with the dribble drive but she also flashes the ability to hit the open three. However 3pt shooting is the one place where Brown saw a dip in her numbers. She took almost double the shots last year but unfortunately her 3pt% fell from 37.5 to 27.9. If she can get her numbers back up FSU will instantly become more dangerous on offense.
Baylor transfer Imani Wright sat out last season but is now eligible for her junior year with FSU. Wright had impressive numbers in her last season in Waco (9.4pg, 3.2rg, 2.5ag) where she started 31 games. In her last year with the Bears, Wright shot .316 from three point range on a whopping 133 shots. Emiah Bingley had the most 3 point attempts for FSU last season with 110. Reports from training camp indicate that Wright still has her 3 point shot. If so she will be a valuable backcourt weapon for FSU as they try to spread the floor to allow their post players room to work inside.
Florida State also has an intriguing set of freshmen to join the backcourt group in 5* Nicole Ekhomu (#21 overall according to Hoop Gurlz), 5* A'Tyanna Gaulden (#23 overall) and 4* Nausia Woolfolk (#57 overall). Ekhomu profiles as a smooth off guard who can get out in transition and get to the rim in half court sets. Gaulden is a lightning quick point guard who will back up Romero this year and then take over the reins for the team next year. Woolfolk is a tough combo guard who can provide versatility and guard multiple positions. It is likely that at least one of these players will be called on to play important minutes for FSU this year and each of them has the talent to contribute right away.
Moving to the frontcourt, the Noles are blessed with more talent. Junior Shakayla Thomas (16.4pg, 5.5rg) will be at the small forward spot. We will see if she starts this year (spoiler: she probably will) but in any case she will be the focus of the offense when she is on the court.Thomas was FSU's leading scorer last year and it would be no shock if she led the team again this year. Thomas is super athletic. One of the story lines this year will be whether she gets a dunk in a game. Even at 5'11 it is very much a possibility as she has done it several times in practice. Whether or not that happens Thomas will be one of the first players discussed on the scouting reports of opposing teams (along with Romero) because she is so difficult to guard. She is similar to Charles Barkley (he actually played before he became a commentator) in that she is too quick for bigger players and too strong for smaller players. She is also a bit of a throwback as she does all of her damage inside the arc. She only has one 3 point attempt in two years at FSU (it was a miss). Thomas' development is one of the keys to FSU's season. She is a player that is dripping with talent but she needs to take the next step and become more consisitent to be a true superstar. This means no nights off. If she can take this step FSU moves from being darkhorse candidate (say 10-15 in the rankings) to a real Final Four contender.
Maria Conde (3.9 pg, 2.1rg) is the latest player in FSU's Spanish Connection. Conde played in every game last year and she showed flashes of being an important piece of the puzzle for the future. As an international player Conde had to adjust to the physicality of the American game but she clearly earned the trust of the coaches as she averaged the most minutes of any nonstarter (I'm counting Thomas as a starter). Conde's most valuable attribute right now is her versatility. The sophomore has the ability to guard three positions on the floor and has shown the ability to make the defense pay if they ignore her.
FSU will have a true frontcourt rotation that is filled with talent. Ivey Slaughter (8.4pg, 6.5rg) will start next to Thomas at the four spot. The senior is a team leader who leads by example by giving max effort whenever she is on the court. Slaughter was second on the team in rebounds last year after Adut Bulgak. She was also first in charges drawn. I couldn't actually find that stat but I watched the games so take my word for it. Slaughter is a excellent team defender and always seems to be in the right spot. She also has a knack for scoring without many plays being run for her.
The Seminoles are blessed with a really talented frontcourt rotation. Kai James (5.8pg, 3.4rg) will be in the mix at the center position. The numbers are not eye popping for the former McDonald's All-American but she played the last couple of years behind one of the best players in program history in Adut Bulgak. Now James has the opportunity to show what she can do on the court. At 6'5 James has excellent size that she has used well at times to carve out space down low. However, with all of the scoring talent that the Noles have on the wing and in the backcourt FSU really needs James to defend and rebound. If she can do that she will earn many more minutes in her senior season.
FSU got great news on Sept 23 when the NCAA granted Illinois transfer Chatrice White (18.7pg, 9.3rg) her immediate eligibility. White will be a junior this year and have two remaining years of eligibility. The 6'3 White provides FSU what it most needed which was more options in the frontcourt. Not only that but she is an extremely talented player (All-BIG10 second team last year). With those numbers from last year White would have led the team in scoring and rebounding. It's not realistic to expect White to duplicate those huge numbers in Tallahassee because she is playing on a better team and won't get as many shots. However, she is obviously a big time rebounder and that is exactly what FSU needs to replace Bulgak. It will be interesting to see who gets the start between James and White but the most important thing will be who earns the trust of the coaches to play the crunch time minutes. Either way, FSU fans are happy that the Noles now have two former McDonald's All-Americans and top 30 players at the center position.
Speaking of top 30 players, 5* F/C Jasmine Walker (#25 overall) will join the frontcourt rotation for FSU in her freshman season. The former Gatorade player of the year in Alabama will provide a versatile inside/outside game for the Noles. Walker has the ability to score on the block or step outside for jumpers. With the addition of White FSU will be able to bring Walker along a bit more slowly but her presence on the roster provides important depth for the Noles.
Ama Degbeon and Iho Lopez will provide even more frontcourt depth for FSU. Degbeon is a player who has proven herself at the international level for the German U-20 team (10.7pg, 9.6rg for Germany) but she hasn't yet been able to earn consistent minutes in Tallahassee. With all of the frontcourt talent FSU will have it will be tough for the junior to break through but if she can the Noles will have an embarrassment of riches up front. Lopez is the final member of FSU's 2016 recruiting class. This year figures to be a learning one for Lopez. She may not see much action this year but she figures to be an important player for the future.
This team is loaded with talent. The Noles have experienced, quality talent at virtually every position. In addition this team is blessed with exceptional depth. If they play to their potential there are realistically only a handful of teams that will challenge them. Advanced metrics adore this team. The Noles finished #10 in last year's Sagarin rankings and this team is more deep and talented on paper than last year.
With that said there are potential weaknesses. FSU could use better shooting behind the arc. Wright (if she can continue her Baylor form), Romero (if she shoots more), and/or Brown (if she regains her sophomore stroke) could help here but FSU needs someone to step up consistently to keep defenses honest. I should note that White flashed 3pt ability at Illinois so she could chip in as well.
Florida State also only shot 68.2% from the free throw line last year. FSU is talented but no team can afford to leave points on the table at the free throw line. Even though that percentage isn't dreadful the Noles would really help themselves by improving in this area.
FSU also needs to continue to be a dominant rebounding team. This is the area that White can really help in immediately because before her arrival there was big question mark about who would replace Bulgak who was one of the best rebounders in school history. The last few years FSU has been good but not great defensively. Being so good at rebounding made the Noles look even better on defense because they limited second shots. If that doesn't happen this year Florida State will have to make big improvements on defense to get the same effect.
Unless the whole team contracts yellow fever Florida State will make the NCAA tournament. ESPN has them as a #3 seed in their preseason bracketology. They have talent superior to all but a handful of teams. However, to be truly elite FSU needs that talent to play up to its potential every night. If that happens the Noles will certainly play Tournament games at the TLCCC and be a legit threat to make the Final Four. The reality is that FSU is on the shortlist of teams with the talent to get to the Final Four. It should be a really fun year.
FSU tips off against the Jacksonville State on Friday Nov 11th at 12:30pm in the TLCCC (ACC Network Extra).