The Florida State basketball team very nearly pulled itself out of a seemingly insurmountable deficit as the Seminoles rallied from 18 down at the half to nearly steal a victory from the Syracuse Orange inside the cavernous confines of the Carrier Dome on Saturday. What put the ‘Noles so far behind the eight ball for the second straight game and what keyed the near-comeback?
Above the Rim
- Going up against a zone defense for the second time this week presented many of the same issues we saw in Wednesday’s loss at Georgia Tech, particularly in the paint. Jonathan Isaac led the Florida State bigs with 19 points, but 11 of those came either from 3s or the free throw line. Senior forward Jarquez Smith was FSU’s next highest scoring big man with six points. Outside of those two, the Seminoles’ interior presence at the offensive end was negligible. In the first half, FSU converted on a dismal 27.2% of its layups (3-11), a stat which can be used to explain what separated a win from a loss in this instance. Not by coincidence, the ‘Noles moved away from the interior game in the second half, shooting 17 three-pointers and 10 two-pointers over the final 20 minutes of the game. However, the shift proved to be too little, too late as the ‘Noles could not come up with the clutch shot or stop they had the chance at on numerous occasions.
- It gets more and more difficult to argue that Isaac has become the most important player on this Florida State team. This was evidenced on Saturday not only by the 20-4 run Syracuse ended the first half on after Isaac left the game with asthma complications, but also by his ability to help the team in a wide variety of ways. He scored FSU’s first nine points of the second half and played a huge role in making the game competitive once again. He also stepped up in a big way on the glass, adding 12 rebounds to his 19 points for his fourth double-double in five games, and continued to excel at the free throw line where many other key Seminoles have struggled of late. His 8-10 performance from the charity stripe accounted for nearly half of FSU’s converted free throws and maintained his team leading 82% conversion rate on free throws. Coming into FSU, Isaac was lauded as a potential top-five draft prospect mainly for his potential. Lately, however, he has flashed the next step in his development on a more consistent basis.
- Xavier Rathan-Mayes’ brazen confidence in his own shot was on full display throughout the second half of the loss to Syracuse. By my count, he took five or six threes which I would deem highly questionable looks. However, when he is making them at the rate he was down the stretch of the game, it’s hard to complain too loudly. His four made three pointers and nine attempts were both season highs. That being said, it would be smart of him to recognize that those looks, particularly coming early in the shot clock on possessions that have seen minimal ball movement, are not normally in the best interest of a Florida State team with such talent throughout the rotation.
- For the second straight weekend, Florida State’s exceptional bench was held at bay as the Seminoles turned to a heavy dose of their starters at the offensive end. Just one week after the bench mounted only 11 points in the home win over Louisville, the FSU bench players managed just 15 points, all of which came in the first half. In fact, Florida State’s big three of Isaac, Dwayne Bacon, and Rathan-Mayes combined to score 54 of FSU’s 72 points (75%).
- A good bit of this is thanks to Leonard Hamilton relying heavily on his starters in the second half. FSU played only six men over the final 20 minutes. Smith, who matched his career high with 27 minutes after playing the entire second half, along with Isaac, Bacon, Rathan-Mayes, and Mann started the second half. The only player Hamilton used off the bench after the break was junior walk-on forward Brandon Allen. Allen, who had played a total of six minutes over FSU’s first eight conference games, played nine minutes in Saturday’s loss, often playing while Isaac got quick breaks during the second half. The fact that Allen was the first (and only) player to come off the bench over the entirety of the second half shows how poorly the rest of the Florida State bench was playing in the first half, at least according to the coaching staff’s in-game evaluation. Some criticism of this controversial decision is to be expected, but it’s difficult from my view to criticize too harshly as there was no obvious person sitting on the bench who would have served as a better back-up to Isaac given the lineup the Seminoles used for the majority of the second half.
- The Florida State defense, although guilty on multiple occasions of leaving perimeter shooters wide open as well as allowing second-chance opportunities, did its job in creating turnovers as Syracuse finished the game with 16. The fault in this situation instead lies with the Seminoles’ inability to turn those turnovers into points. FSU finished the loss with seven fastbreak points, one of the team’s lowest outputs in the category this season.
- As I wrote earlier this week, winning on the road in ACC play is quite difficult regardless of the opponent. Saturday’s slate of games was a great example of this as the top three teams in the ACC standings (UNC, Notre Dame, FSU) each lost road tests with the Tar Heels getting trounced at Miami while the Fighting Irish lost on a buzzer beater to the same Georgia Tech team that beat up on the Seminoles earlier this week. This is a credit not just to the difficulty of attaining road ACC wins, but also to the depth the conference has.
Waiting at the Scorer’s Table
The finale of FSU’s three-game road trip comes on Wednesday when the Seminoles travel down to Miami for a date with the same Hurricanes team that just ran No. 9 North Carolina out of the gym.