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Observations from Florida State basketball’s win over Illinois

It wasn’t always pretty, but it goes in the win column regardless.

NCAA Basketball: NIT Season Tip-Off-Florida State vs Illinois Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

Coming off a devastating outcome in Thursday’s loss to Temple which saw Florida State fall after leading by 18 points in the second half, all eyes would be on the response from this FSU team in Friday’s third-place game of the NIT Season Tip-Off. Although the game left plenty to be desired, the Seminoles survived a challenge from Illinois, defeating the Illini 72-61 to improve to 5-1 on the season.

Freshman effect

With Florida State’s latest recruiting class now six games into their careers, you can see the strides those players are making in acclimating to the collegiate game as they were on full display in Friday’s victory.

For the second time in as many days, freshman point guard CJ Walker provided a spark off the bench in the middle of the first half, rattling off eight points in a less-than-three-minute stretch. By game’s end, Walker had a career-high 13 points on a very efficient 5-8 shooting to go along with four boards. True freshman forward Jonathan Isaac added 17 points, his sixth straight double-digit scoring game to open his career at Florida State, and a team-high seven rebounds.

Where those freshmen may have come up biggest was in the clutch moments of the game, though. In addition to Walker’s first-half run, Walker and Trent Forrest, who finished with four steals, played huge roles in creating turnovers and finishing at the basket as part of Florida State’s 9-0 run in the second half which put FSU ahead for good.

Walker may have been the Seminole reserve who stepped up in the two games in Brooklyn but one of Florida State’s biggest strengths so far this season is that multiple young bench players have proved capable of filling that role so far this season. In addition to Walker, Trent Forrest, Chris Koumadje, and Braian Angola-Rodas have all played the spark plug in FSU’s first six games.

Boarding school

An unpromising trend has developed in Florida State’s first two games against major-conference opponents. FSU is struggling on the defensive glass in spite of its two seven-foot players in the rotation. Against Illinois, the Seminoles surrendered 16 offensive boards, nine of which came in the first half, allowing the Illini to keep it close for the majority of the game. Unsurprisingly, Illinois’ 16 offensive boards led to 20 second-chance points, of which Florida State managed just eight. In total, FSU was outrebounded 41-33.

This advantage on the boards was in large part negated by FSU’s exceptional interior defense. Illinois finished the game hitting 38.9% of its two-point shots as the Illini were greatly affected by the Seminoles’ lengthiness, which led to seven Florida State blocks, four of which were from Christ Koumadje. This resulted in Illinois shooting 32.8% from the field, by far FSU’s best opposing shooting percentage of the young season.

That praise being said, if Florida State doesn’t shore up its defensive rebounding before the conference slate gets underway, it’s hard to seriously consider the Seminoles as a potential NCAA Tournament team.

Hot Shot

After finding themselves the victims of a three-point barrage in the second half of the loss to Temple, the Seminoles put on a perimeter show of their own in the win over Illinois.

The Seminoles finished the win with season highs in converted three-pointers (9) and three-point percentage (60% on 9-15 shooting). Isaac and sophomore guard Dwayne Bacon led the way, hitting 3-4 and 3-5 from outside the arc, respectively. Walker had a perfect 2-2 performance from the perimeter and Angola-Rodas was 1-1.

This showing is exceedingly promising as Florida State, a 31.1% three-point shooting team entering Friday, rose to the occasion in the first game this season where the interior play was not coming easily.

Now, it must be acknowledged that 60% shooting from outside is hardly sustainable going forward. However, for a FSU team that made 20 of 72 threes in its four season-opening games at home, the trip to Brooklyn - and the accompanying 51.5% mark from outside the arc that the Seminoles found in those two games - could have righted the three-point ship, adding a much-needed wrinkle to the Florida State offense going forward.

Waiting at the Scorer’s Table

After finishing the Brooklyn portion of the NIT Season Tip-Off with a 3-1 record, Florida State returns home for a Monday night matchup with the 5-0 Minnesota Gophers as the Seminoles look to snap an eight-game losing streak in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge.