After the surprising 21 point victory over Notre Dame last week, I asked whether it was a sign the young Seminoles had turned a corner, or just a one-game aberration in an up and down season. After beating a Syracuse Orange team absolutely desperate for a win...well I don't want to say the corner is officially turned, but it's at least being rounded.
And perhaps the best news to take away from the game is that FSU won with defense. If you had told me before the game that the Noles would have turned the ball over on 25% of their possessions and shot just 29% for the game on threes, I can't say I'd have predicted a win. Nevertheless, the Seminoles prevailed, limiting the Orange to just .96 points per possession.
As Michael Rogner pointed out in the game recap, it was a true team win. Freshmen Malik Beasley, Dwayne Bacon, and Terance Mann combined for 56% of the team's scoring, 51% of the rebounding, and 42% of the assists--including a game sealing outlet pass from Mann after he grabbed a crucial late-game rebound. However, despite poor shooting days from seniors Devon Bookert, Boris Bojanovsky, and Montay Brandon, that group did the little things that don't often show up in a box score but are vital in securing a win. Boris adjusting mid-air to a poor pass on an ally-oop, tipping it out to a teammate to retain possession. Devon sprinting 70 feet to poke loose the ball on a Syracuse fast break with less than a minute to play. Montay, and even Michael Saxton, grabbing offensive rebounds to extend possession.
Like the Notre Dame win (and even the Duke loss, to be honest), the effort and intensity on defense was much improved from a month ago, as well as sustained throughout the game. Little things like keeping their arms extended and moving their feet instead of reaching led to a number of deflections and turnovers. And those lead to easy points. The Noles also attacked the glass relentlessly, limiting Syracuse to just one shot on 86% of their possessions.
Looking even deeper, two things stood out to me as most improved over the last two weeks:
1. Better Communication -- Earlier in the season, many defensive possessions ended with three Noles exchanging confused and frustrated looks. Communication--an essential part of team defense--was often ineffective and at times non-existent. And admittedly, it's difficult to effectively communicate when half the team doesn't grasp what they are supposed to be doing.
I first noticed this beginning to change in the Miami game, with the charge ironically being led by a guy who hasn't played a single minute this season--Michael Ojo. Go to any game and you can watch Ojo standing by the bench, calling out defensive sets from the sideline. (After the game, Hamilton confirmed how critical Ojo's leadership has been for the team this year). A month later, that knowledge and communication has appeared to have been transferred over to the players on the court and the defense is flourishing because of it.
2. Guys embracing their roles -- Any successful team has a keen understanding what the individual roles within the team are. And for much of this season, that wasn't there for the Noles. Now that seems to be changing.
Malik and Devon provide the outside threat, while also crashing the defensive glass. Dwayne attacks the rim, gets to the FT line, and exposes soft spots in the opponents zone. Terance and Montay stuff the stat sheet, doing a bit of everything while also disrupting passing lanes with their length. Benji is lightning in a bottle off the bench. Boris is a rim protector and possession extender on the offensive glass. Jarquez can take advantage of slower, less athletic opponents in the paint with a variety of post moves. And XRM pushes the pace, ensuring the team plays at the track-meet tempo at which this team thrives.
Earlier in the season it seemed there were 5 or 6 "why did HE just attempt THAT" moments per game. But on Saturday, everyone played their role and the result was a sum greater than its parts.
After the game, Hamilton, Bookert, Bacon, and Beasley all acknowledged they have little margin for error, but also all expressed confidence in the team's current level of play and the lessons learned from the five-game skid. Beasley, in particular, provided insight into how tough the adjustment to college basketball is and the growth in his physical and mental approach to the game this season. You can find full interviews of Devon and Malik below.
Meanwhile, Syracuse--losers of 4 of their last 5-- is headed in the opposite direction and now could be in bubble trouble themselves. When asked after the game, a clearly frustrated Jim Boeheim refused to discuss whether he thought the Orange needed to win a game or two in the ACC Tournament in order to feel safe on Selection Sunday. Instead, Boeheim focused on the Orange's poor shooting, particularly in the second half, and missed opportunities in this game.
When asked if the lack of depth (Syracuse has only played 7 guys for much of the season) was a concern this late in the season and with tournament games being played on little rest, Boeheim referenced his team's ability to win three games in three days at the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament back in November as proof that lack of depth has no impact on Syracuse's recent slump or shooting woes.
If the Orange are able to beat Pitt in the 8/9 matchup, it will be interesting to see whether Syracuse's shooting legs look like those of a tired, heavyweight fighter when the bell rings for the next round.
Devon talking about how he has grown at FSU, the importance of the win, and the legacy he hopes to leave for the young guys:
Malik discussing a range of topics, including the lessons he's learned this year and the team's improvement: