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Baseline Breakdown: FSU basketball owns Iona

And I had to look up just what a Gael is.

NCAA Basketball: Iona at Florida State
Jonathan Isaac drives against Iona
Melina Vastola-USA TODAY Sports

Yes, it’s against Charleston Southern and Iona, but the FSU men’s basketball team is off to a 2-0 start and just outside the Top 25. Tuesday’s 99-78 pasting of the Iona Gaels was actually a game the Seminoles could have lost. Until, that is, it actually started. Let’s take a look at how the ‘Noles had this one on cruise control for most of the second half.

To reiterate my colleague Matt Minnick’s explanation: this year we are going to take a bit of a different approach with the Baseline Breakdowns. We’ll start off above the rim and give you some high-level observations—think of it as the view from Christ Koumadje’s vantage point. Next, we’ll dig a bit deeper with court-level analysis. Finally, if anything noteworthy is said post-game, we’ll be sure to pass it along.

Above the Rim:

It’s tough to say that this is a good Iona team, since Tuesday night’s game was the Gaels’ opener, and it’s pretty difficult to ascertain the quality of teams at this early stage of the season. What we do know is that Iona was an NCAA Tournament team last year that returned its top two scorers.

And the Gaels were certainly not intimidated on this ACC stage, staking themselves to an early 9-8 in a game that looked like it could be this year’s early-season, disappointing FSU loss (see Hofstra, 2015). The only problem, for Iona, was that nobody told the ‘Noles, who opened up making eight of their first nine shots from the floor. If it weren’t for four turnovers on their first 10 possessions and a pathetic three for 10 start from the line, Florida State really could have had this one over quite early. As it was, the ‘Noles still took a 15-point lead into the half.

But the fact remains that this was never really a game, and that’s a great thing for the Seminoles, who did what good team are supposed to do against inferior competition. FSU wasn’t able to play nearly as fast as it would have liked, due to the Gaels employing both 1-3-1 and 2-3 zones on defense. Still, the ‘Noles put up 99 points, even though they committed 20 turnovers, went 4-17 on threes, and shot 67.5% from the free throw line with only eight fast-break points.

How? Absolute domination in the paint, where FSU outscored Iona 52-18. Iona, the tallest players of which are 6-9, had no answer other than fouling (imagine if Florida State had made a few more of its 40 attempts from the line), and three Gael front-court players fouled out. On two-point FGs, the ‘Noles shot a staggering 71.4%, while averaging 1.193 points per possession.

Defensively, the Seminoles again created a good deal of chaos, generating seven steals and holding up-tempo Iona to .963 PPP and a FG percentage of 37.3%. A big reason the ‘Noles can play so hard? Trust. They know that there are fresh bodies to spell them waiting on the bench, as was once again demonstrated by Florida State going 11 deep before the game was ten minutes old. Six of those players posted double-digit points, while no player logged more than 26 minutes (Dwayne Bacon led the way there). That’ll not only keep these Seminoles fresh during games— it’ll save their legs as the season wears on.

Court Level:

Jonathan Isaac led the way for Florida State with 20 points, which were very quiet— and that’s not a bad thing. It means that Isaac is letting the game come to him and not forcing his offense into the contest. He was an efficient 6-8 from the floor, 6-7 from the charity stripe, and the only ‘Nole to make more than one three-pointer.

Isaac is almost certainly gone after this year, but he’s not playing like the NBA is a given and he just wants to get his highlights on TV. He’s a very good teammate who plays smart and hustles on defense.

But about that 4-17 mark from beyond the arc. Yikes. This is a definite problem for FSU, which will see more and more zone not just in an effort to slow down their high-flying attack, but also to exploit what is an obvious weakness at present. The Seminoles’ top sniper, PJ Savoy, again sat out with turf toe, which is also a concern, as that’s an injury that can linger and really affect a player for extended periods of time. Getting most of Savoy’s minutes is newcomer Braian Angola-Rodas, who has a nice stroke, but he went 0-2 from deep.

Iona didn’t do much better than the ‘Noles from long range, hitting just 9 of 31 (29%). However, the Gaels had some looks, as the FSU defense often collapsed too readily on a player in the paint. Helping off the ball is not a bad thing, in and of itself, but Florida State cannot afford to vacate numerous outside shooters moving forward as it gets into the heart of its schedule. That said, the Seminoles extended Iona possessions longer than the Gaels would have preferred, on several occasions bringing the shot clock into play, thereby controlling the pace at which their opponent wanted to play.

Speaking of control, how about freshman Trent Forrest? He contributed 10 points on five for eight shooting, but really stuck out for how well he controls his body when in the air, a la Bacon. Forrest continues to play smart, which is probably why he’s moved ahead of CJ Walker for backup point guard duties. However, Forrest needs to dramatically improve on Tuesday night’s 0-4 performance from the line if he wants to have the ball in his hands during crucial situations.

FSU Head Coach Leonard Hamilton showed his own control of the game via his substitution patterns, especially regarding the ‘Nole big men. Although Michael Ojo again got the start at center, Hamilton yanked him after just two minutes, and Jarquez Smith saw the lion’s share of time at the five, logging 23 minutes compared to Ojo’s five and Christ Koumadje’s seven.

In this regard, Ham reacted appropriately when he saw how soft the Gaels were inside: the Seminoles didn’t need the big body of Ojo or the length of Koumadje— the more refined Smith had a great game, going three for five from the floor and making all six of his free throws while leading FSU with seven boards. There will be other matchups that require more time from the other bigs, but it looks like Hamilton will allocate minutes based upon the situation and opponent. And that’s never a bad idea.

Finally, the crowd was a little underwhelming for a quality opponent like the Gaels; the official attendance was 4,530. But it’s fair to concede that while this was an impressive win for the ‘Noles, the name Iona just doesn’t carry a lot of weight. If FSU can continue to take care of business, those numbers will improve.

Post Game:

Iona Head Coach Tim Cluess:

“They wear you down . . . obviously a lot more size than we have.”

“They did a great job of reversing and driving the ball on us and really challenging us at the rim and getting us into foul trouble.”

“They did a great job of denying and switching on us.”

“You can’t make mistakes against a team as good as FSU. When you do, they make you pay for it . . . that turnover is going to be a dunk down on the other end.”

This game saw the return of a familiar name to the Tucker Center, as Iona guard Sam Cassell, Jr., the son of the Seminole great Sam Cassell, is a starting guard for the Gaels. He spoke about playing in Tallahassee (after dropping a game-high 28 points on the ‘Noles):

“It felt good coming back and playing down here . . . I played JUCO down here so it just felt like I was back at home. It’s my father’s team, so I wanted to beat them so I could talk trash to him.”

FSU Head Coach Leonard Hamilton:

“Our defensive effort in the first half was a reflection of the respect that we have for Iona.”

“I was very disappointed with the 20 turnovers . . . we tried to knock some home runs and make some full court passes that were ill-advised.”

“The quality of our depth allowed us to sustain our effort.”

“The biggest challenge for us as a coaching staff is to find the way to utilize the quality of the depth we have on our team.”

“There’s no question that PJ Savoy is our best three point shooter and he’s not playing . . . it’s part of growing and development. We’ll be fine.”

FSU forward Phil Cofer:

On what he learned sitting on the bench last year while injured: “Sitting on the bench besides Coach Jones was a major thing that helped me a long way. Just seeing defensive keys, principles that we use, just to have that Junkyard Defense back.”

“[My role] is whatever the coach wants me to be. One of the key things, probably, this year is I’m a rebounding guy. I’ll be getting 10 every night.”

FSU forward Jarquez Smith:

“They’re an NCAA [Tournament] team, they made it to March Madness last year. You know, we kind of took that personally. They made it. We should have been there. It was time to redeem ourselves.”

“The best thing for us to do is forget about this game. Forget about this game, but don’t forget about how we played. Start the scout on the next team, see what we need to do, and practice working on those things.”

“My job on this team is to keep everyone connected. I’m more of a ‘coming off the bench, second string’ type guy to try to pick up the energy . . . coach explained it to me and I’m okay with it. It’s my role.”

“I’m trying to do the things that were in the scouting report that allow us to win. If guys go out and they see one person out there hustling his butt off, doing the things that coach says, they’re all gonna pick up and do the same things. I feel like that’s what coach wants me and needs me to do.”

On defensive improvement: “We’ve talked about it. We’ve worked on it. We just don’t want to be in the same position we were last year (missing out on the NCAA Tournament) and we know people don’t see us as a good defensive team, as compared to other Florida State teams. That kind of puts a chip on our shoulder, so we’re picking it up this year.”

Waiting at the Scorer’s Table:

The Winthrop Eagles, whom the ‘Noles will host at 7 pm on Friday night. The Eagles are 2-0 and just beat Manhattan, another team that FSU will play in December.