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FSU basketball: What we’ve learned through 11 games

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NCAA Basketball: Florida at Florida State Phil Sears-USA TODAY Sports

Florida State basketball is back on the map. The 10-1 Seminoles are the No. 23 team in the nation. Team Rankings currently gives them an 82% chance of dancing. And national sites are writing feature articles about FSU players.

It’s an exciting time to be a fan. But there’s still a long way to go, and on an ACC path fraught with peril, it’ll be a bumpy road between now and March.

So what have we learned about this team? Are they Final Four contenders hiding in garnet and gold? Will the schedule be too much, sending them back to the NIT? Or are they somewhere in between—just one of many talented teams whose fate will mostly be determined by how many breaks they catch?

The Offense

Quite simply, the offense is way better than expected. FSU lost their top three shooters (one to the NBA, one to graduation, one to a transfer), leaving Terance Mann (seriously) as the top returning 3-pt shooter (31%) from a team that was below the national average. However, 12 games in, FSU has improved from 197th in 3-pt% last year to 85th.

The other big improvement is cutting down turnovers from 18% of possessions, to 16.1%. That’s the difference between 168th nationally and 39th.

If FSU can continue to score at an efficient rate and limit the turnovers, they’ll have the opportunity to surpass the Al Thornton dominated 2006-07 offense as the best in Leonard Hamilton’s tenure. The “give the ball to Al and get out of the way” offense was 22nd nationally, while this team is currently 19th.

Drinking the Kool-Aid

The good news: the offense is clicking. The bad news: it’s nowhere near where it needs to be if you want to be drinking the whole pitcher of Kool-Aid. In the 15 years of available advanced data, 55% of Final Four teams have had an offense ranked among the top seven nationally (of 351 teams). Of those teams without a top-7 offense, 44% had a top-5 defense. It seems you need to be elite on at least one end of the floor.

There are outliers, of course. But they are outliers for a reason. If you want to have any reason to be drinking the Kool-Aid, the ‘Noles need to get MUCH better on offense, defense, or both.

The Newcomers are Exceeding Expectations

Jonathan Isaac is the newcomer garnering the most attention, which is natural, as he was the highest-rated, and is slated to be an NBA lottery pick next year. And he’s been great. Even better than expected. We knew he’d rebound with his size and athleticism, and so far he’s grabbed 21.1% of the available defensive boards, which is the highest on the team. The last regular who rebounded that well was Alexander Johnson 11 years ago. What we didn’t expect from Isaac is for him to be so fluid in the offense. He’s knocking down 3s. He’s moving the ball. It’s been good.

Trent Forrest has also stood out. He reminds me of freshman Michael Snaer, who eventually forced his way into the starting lineup and played the 4th most minutes on the team. I don’t expect Forrest to supplant any of the starters, but he’s having the same effect. He’s played the 4th most minutes and provides a stout and intuitive defensive presence.

The others - CJ Walker, Braian Angola-Rodas, and PJ Savoy all have clear and important roles on the team, as well.

Without these five stepping in and stepping up, FSU wouldn’t be where they are.

Post Play

To run an effective 4-out offense, you need a strong post presence. And Florida State’s 3-man rotation has been stout.

At the center position, FSU is averaging 15.8 ppg, 10.0 rpg, and 3.9 blocks. Most teams would gladly trade whatever they’re getting out of the post for that production.

Michael Ojo has been fantastic guarding the pick and roll, and he’s chipping in quite a bit on offense, as well. Christ Koumadje has been an offensive sparkplug, and his defense has improved drastically from last year. And Jarquez Smith brings a different level of versatility to the position.

These three allow FSU to switch ball screens 1-4, which has been a boon to the defense. The ‘Noles trade a bit of quickness for tremendous size on the floor, and being able to switch screens like that makes other teams’ quickness advantage much less of an issue.

Dwayne Bacon and Xavier Rathan-Mayes

Bacon and Rathan-Mayes have been great. No one has ever doubted their offensive skills, so in order to evaluate their progress you must look to the defensive end. Bacon looks like a different player this year. And sometimes I don’t even recognize X. If you want to know what Leonard Hamilton thinks about his perimeter defenders, watch who he puts on the opposing point guard 35-feet from the basket. This isn’t a lock-down defense—it’s a disruptive defense. And that disruption starts with the man hounding the ball, knowing his teammates are positioned to take away any straight line passes. XRM has been consistent in his pressure, while also funneling his man to the right spots.

With 11 games in the books, we’ve learned quite a bit, but we still have a long way to go. Your next opportunity to see FSU in action is Saturday in the Orange Bowl Classic vs. Manhattan.