For much of the afternoon, it appeared the Florida State mens basketball team was finally going to get off the snide. And then in a matter of minutes, it all came crumbling down.
After the game opened with a walk down main street dunk for Virginia Tech, the Seminoles displayed the kind of effort that's been lacking for several games. Fueled by a hot shooting Dwayne Bacon--who tied a season high with five made threes, four of which came in the game's first 12 minutes--and a good enough defensive effort to generate stops and turnovers, FSU raced out to an early 12 point lead. And despite some first half foul trouble, FSU made enough plays to go into the half with an eight-point lead.
The Noles' maintained a working four to eight point lead for the majority of the second half. And with 8:51 to play, Dwayne Bacon made a nifty layup to put the Seminoles ahead of Virginia Tech 64-58. The next three possessions for VT went like this: 1) missed jumper; 2) turnover; 3) turnover.
Every game has a moment where the victorious team seizes control for good. Sometimes this moment comes before halftime and the game's outcome is never truly in doubt. Sometimes the moment arrives with a few seconds left on the clock. But every game has this moment. And this was FSU's moment. Only one problem. The Seminoles didn't seize it.
FSU had three straight possessions to extend the lead back out to eight, or even double digits. They had three straight possessions to put VT on the ropes and walk out of a sold out Cassell Coliseum with a critical victory and booster shot of confidence. And here's what the Noles did with those three straight possessions: 1) blocked shot; 2) missed jumper; 3) turnover.
With 7:34 left, Virginia Tech guard Jalen Hudson hit a three to cut the lead in half. A few minutes later, Tech took their first lead since that game opening dunk. And a few minutes later, the Hokies were up double-digits. It turns out, the victorious team did seize control of the game in that moment. Except for the fourth consecutive game, the victorious team was not FSU.
Micro Level Thoughts:
Looking at this game in a vacuum, this game was--stop me if you've heard this before--lost on defense. Despite below average three-point shooting for every Nole not named Bacon (this was a particularly poor game for Devon Bookert, who shot 0-4 from deep after coming into the game shooting better than 50% from three in ACC play), the offense performed well enough on the game to get the win. FSU scored 1.09 points per possession, generated open looks for much of the game, and turned the ball over on 18% of their possessions--which is slightly better than the national average.
Defense was another story. As noted, FSU played solid enough defense in the first half, holding VT to 37 points on 35 possessions. Not great, but better than recent play. Let's not kid ourselves, there were still guys (mostly non-senior guards) out of position on the perimeter, leading to a handful of dunks and open layups. But the effort level was high enough to also generate some steals, forced shots, and limit the Hokies on the offensive glass.
The second half, particularly the last 10 minutes, that effort seemed to disappear and the defensive positioning got worse. VT is an elite team at generating fouls and points from the free throw line. However, the Hokies are not a great shooting team, ranking 14th in the ACC in two-point percentage and 6th in the league in three-point percentage. The FSU coaching staff, looking to take advantage of VT's below average shooting and elite FT scoring, had the Noles switch between a man and zone D all game long. The idea is to force the Hokies into contested jumpers, while avoiding fouls. The key word there is "contested."
FSU defenders, in both the man and zone, left guys wide open. Like, more open than a team shoot around. And after developing a little rhythm, VT shooters liked what they saw. For the game, the Hokies shot 50% from two, 58% from three (11-19), and scored 1.24 points per possession. That represents their second most efficient output of the season, only behind the 1.29 ppp VT put up on a Wake team who just suspended one player and kicked another off the team. And the crazy part is, it could have been even worse if VT--a team that shoots 74% from the FT line on the season--hadn't shot just 59% at the stripe.
You just cannot go on the road in the ACC and expect to win a game when you allow over 1.20 points per possession.
Macro Level Thoughts:
Before we go further, I want to emphasize that these are observations. The observations might be based on a variety of encounters, anything from watching practice, to interviewing coaches and players, to sitting court side at games. But at the end of the day they are still just one man's observations.
The 2015-16 FSU mens basketball team hasn't fully developed the skill of winning. Obviously they can win. We have watched them play very well in stretches this season, and the Noles have notched victories over at least three teams that are hoping for a bid on Selection Sunday. But consistently winning, especially when you aren't playing well, is a skill, no different than shooting or dribbling. It takes repetition, practice, and development. But unlike dribbling, much of the underlying attributes of winning are mental: resiliency, grit, toughness, and selflessness.
When I was a teacher I used to perform 1-on-1 "interviews" with every student. Before each semester I would ask them to define their personal goals for my class. Nearly all of them said they wanted to get an "A." But when I asked them what they felt they needed to do in order to earn an "A," most had trouble articulating an answer. As the semester progressed, very few were willing to do the work necessary to earn their coveted grade.
The reality is, nearly everyone in life wants to succeed. People want to win. But not everyone understands what it takes to win at the highest level. And even if a person does understand, even fewer are willing to do the work--the little things--necessary to consistently win at the highest level.
It's obvious to me that the guys on this team want to win. They want to make the NCAA Tournament. I've heard them say it. At times, I've seen it in their actions and body language. But as a whole--because in team sports you win and lose as a TEAM--it's not clear to me that this team understands what it takes to reach their goals. And, if in fact they do understand, then they certainly haven't been willing to do all that it takes to reach their goals.
Yesterday's game against Virginia Tech played out in similar fashion to FSU's entire season. The Noles started well and displayed an enthusiasm for playing an aggressive, uptempo offense and gave enough effort on defense to overcome the sins of youth that led to guys being out of position. And despite some bumps in the road (first half foul trouble), FSU fought back, weathered the storm, and put themselves in position to accomplish their goals. However, when the defining moment arrived, the Seminoles were unable to seize it. And when the moment had come and gone, and the opponent threw a hay-maker, FSU was unable to get off the mat.
Two weeks ago, Florida State sat at 16-7, 6-5 in league play. The Noles were fresh off a 20 point road victory, had won four consecutive games, and were in prime position to go dancing in March.
Currently, FSU is 16-11, 6-9 in league play. The Noles are fresh off a 10 point road loss, have lost four consecutive games, and would need a minor miracle (and complete 180 in defensive performance) to put on their dancing shoes. If Florida State does end up missing the Tourney, the seniors would be the first players who played four years under coach Hamilton to end their career without an NCAAT appearance since the 2005 freshmen class.
Perhaps the most unpredictable part of this late-season collapse, is that Leonard Hamilton teams almost always have two things in common: 1) They are tough and resilient mentally and physically; 2) They improve as the season progresses, and finish the year strong.
These are precisely the two areas that this team appears to be missing. We've already touched on the mental toughness. But the late-season slide--perhaps a by-product of the lack of mental toughness--has been shocking.
Dating back to the 2006 season, Hamilton's teams are a combined 52-38 over the last 9 games of the regular season. Even last year's team that was severe lacking depth managed to go 4-5 over their final 9 games.The only season with a similar stretch of losses during the back half of the ACC season was in 2007 when FSU lost five straight in February. Of course, long time fans will recall that those five losses coincided with starting point guard Toney Douglas being sidelined with a broken hand.
This year's team, while short-handed on the front-line, has better depth than last season. And they've had no such injury to a starting guard. And yet, with three games to go, the Noles appear headed to a 3-6 finish at best, and even that would require finding a win against one of Duke, Notre Dame, and Syracuse.
So what does this all mean? In the long term, I honestly don't know. But in the short term, if this FSU team is to earn the "A" they all want, they need to start doing the little things required to win at this level, and they need to start immediately.