Florida State is off to a hot start this year. The Seminoles (#12 AP, #10 Coaches, #7 RPI, #7 Sagarin) are undefeated at 10-0. They have won every game this year by double digits except for a 94-93 comeback win in Iowa City against the Hawkeyes in the ACC/Big10 Challenge. FSU is 4th in the nation in OPPP (1.169) and 34th in DPPP (.785). The Noles have accomplished this against the 125th toughest schedule according to Sagarin. The relatively light schedule has led some to reserve opinion on this team even though the results have been impressive. We will examine where this team is now and where they may be going this year in an attempt to determine whether this hot start is a harbinger of things to come or whether it is really fool’s gold.
Reasons for optimism
This team is really talented. Of the nine players on the active roster - more on that later - there are 5 who were 5* players and 2 who were 4* players out of high school. The only non four or five star players on the active roster are Ama Degbeon (Germany) and Iho Lopez (Spain) who are from overseas so they may not have been evaluated properly.
However, rankings don’t matter if the results don’t show up on the court. Fortunately for FSU fans the results so far have been quite positive. Shakayla Thomas is the reigning ACC Player of the Year and she is living up to that billing in her senior season. She is averaging 20.6 points per game along with 7.8 rebounds. She is leading the ACC in points per 40 minutes (30.3). She is doing all of that while shooting at a 56.7% clip. In short, she is stepping up the way her team has needed this season.
The other returning rotation players for Florida State are Imani Wright and Chatrice White. Wright is second on the team in scoring (16.2) and is shooting .381 from deep as FSU’s primary three point shooter. White leads the team in rebounding (8.1) and is shooting 81.8% from the free throw line. Both players have played the way that FSU has needed them to in order to compensate for the losses of last year’s seniors.
One of the major questions for this year was how redshirt senior AJ Alix would fit in with the team after transferring from TCU. This question has been answered very positively for FSU. Alix is averaging 7.7 assists per game along with 13.3 points per game. She is also shooting a very impressive 44.8% from three. Perhaps even more importantly, Alix’s play directing the offense from the point is a big factor in the way FSU’s offense has been clicking so well in the early going.
Another big unknown for the Seminoles early in the season was who would step in at the power forward position. That duty has fallen to senior Ama Degbeon. Degbeon is not the most skilled player that you will ever see but she hustles all the time and she has a knack for being in the right place at the right time. With all of the offensive talent around her the Noles don’t need Degbeon to put up big numbers. They need her to rebound and defend while keeping the defense honest with the occasional offense. She is fulfilling that role well (7.6pg,6.4rg).
Florida State has primarily featured two players off the bench in sophomores Nicole Ekhomu and Nausia Woolfolk. As we discussed with the starters, both players have given FSU what they need. In Ekhomu’s case she has provided scoring off the bench (11.0pg) and has rebounded very well for a guard (6.4rg). She also leads the Noles at the line shooting 86%. Woolfolk has provided depth in the backcourt and is FSU’s backup point guard. She is averaging 8.1 points per game and 5.8 rebounds.
In short, FSU has been getting exactly what they need from the main (top 7) rotation. If they stay healthy the Seminoles have the talent to be a handful for every team in the nation this side of UConn. However, even though they have a perfect record this obviously isn’t a perfect team. Now let’s discuss some of the issues that could cause problems this season.
Reasons for concern
There are a few issues that we could discuss with this team. For example, that DPPP rating isn’t bad but at 34th in the nation but it is considerably lower than last year when FSU was in the top 10 virtually the entire year in both OPPP and DPPP. So that is a bit of a concern. However, realistically, whether or not this program can get to a fourth straight Sweet 16 (or beyond) will hinge on just one factor - health.
The biggest concern for this team (by far) is that there is very little depth. If FSU has even one serious injury to one of the rotation players discussed above this season which has started out so beautifully can go sideways in a hurry.
To illustrate the concern here let’s examine the two games FSU has played so far against Sagarin top 25 opponents. They were against Iowa (#22) and Arizona State (#21). Neither game went to overtime so there were 400 minutes total played in the two games. Of those 400 minutes the top seven played 394 (98.5%). This is a clear indicator that the coaching staff really only trusts those top seven when playing tough competition. This is understandable as the other two players on the roster - Savannah Wilkinson and (redshirt) Iho Lopez - are both freshmen. However, if there is an injury (or even foul trouble) one or both of them may need to play important minutes and the staff is indicating that they may not be ready.
So issue one is that there are only seven players in the rotation. If everyone remains healthy seven players is fine. I personally think that eight or nine players would be ideal but you can win a lot of games with a rotation of seven talented players and Florida State definitely has that.
Issue two may be even more important and that is that there are only nine active players on the entire roster. There are 11 players on the roster but Sayawni Lassiter (season ending injury) and Kiah Gillespie (NCAA transfer rules) are both inactive. With only nine players FSU is dangerously thin. So thin that it may have been worth exploring accepting a walk-on or two for roster depth. Obviously walk-ons wouldn’t get much playing time on a roster this talented but FSU is in a position where insurance would be nice. Injuries happen - Duke has already lost two players for the season and Notre Dame has been hit hard as well. If FSU gets hit with injuries they could really be in need of more players.
It is worth exploring how FSU ended in such a precarious position numbers wise. Obviously when discussing roster management it begins with recruiting. Before we begin it is important to note that women’s basketball recruiting is different from men’s recruiting in that it is really tough to have top classes every year because 5* kids want to play right away and since most women players stay four years rosters get stacked and it is hard to get top players to agree to wait their turn. Since the men have the one and done rule this is not as much of an issue for them.
Getting back to FSU, we can see a trend when looking at the recruiting classes. In 2013, FSU signed four players - Kai James (#22 overall), Ivey Slaughter (#79), Brittany Brown (#85) and 3* Gabrielle Bevillard. In 2014, the Noles signed two players (Shakayla Thomas (#11) and 3* Chania Ray). In 2015, FSU signed 3* players Maria Conde and Rachel Antoniadou. In 2016, the Noles bounced back with the #7 class according to ESPN which featured Nicole Ekhomu (#21), A’Tyanna Gaulden (#23), Jasmine Walker (#25), Nausia Woolfolk (#57), and 3* Iho Lopez. In 2017, FSU signed Wilkinson (#52) and 3* Lassiter. Finally, in 2018 FSU has a top 5 class coming in featuring five top 100 players.
The trend that I was referring to is that there are classes with four or more players alternating with classes with two or fewer players. In other words, there are up cycles and down cycles and what is happening to FSU now with the depth is that the Noles are feeling the effects of the down cycle that happened in 2014 and 2015. To be clear, by down cycle I am not referring to talent, I am just talking about numbers.
The other big reason for the depth issues is the transfer phenomenon that has so affected the college game in the last few years. FSU on balance has benefited more than been hurt by the uptick in transfer activity. Since 2013 the Noles have had Ray (West Virginia), Gaulden (Arkansas) and Walker (Alabama) transfer out. Not counting JUCO, FSU has had Morgan Jones, Emiah Bingley, Maegan Conwright, Shakena Richardson (who later transferred to Seton Hall), Leticia Romero, Chatrice White, Imani Wright, AJ Alix and Kiah Gillespie transfer in. Therefore, there is no question that on balance the transfer game has been a positive for Florida State. However, that doesn’t mean that the Noles haven’t been hurt by transfers.
Both Gaulden and especially Walker would really look good in garnet and gold right now. Walker transferred due to an acute case of homesickness while Gaulden left in search of more playing time. Whatever the reason, both players are former 5*s and would have been very useful this year. Conde and Antoniadou both left to play professionally in their native countries of Spain and Australia. Antoniadou was in Tallahassee only a year and didn’t play a whole lot but she would have provided depth at the point and given that she would have been a junior this year she would have probably improved as a player over her freshman year. Conde would have definitely been an asset this year. The 6’1 wing would have challenged for a starting spot and at the very least would have provided around 25 good minutes a game off the bench.
Sometimes you just get unlucky. Hatty Nawezhi (13.4 pts, 9.7 reb) from Northeastern Oklahoma A&M was a JUCO transfer who committed to FSU. She would likely be starting for the Noles right now but the NCAA refused to clear her. She may join the Seminoles next year but her status is uncertain. Speaking of the NCAA, they ruled that Gillespie has to sit out a year due to the transfer rules. However, those rules seem to be malleable as some players (Jessica Shepard at ND this year, White at FSU last year) get to play right away while others have to wait.
That’s the story explaining why FSU has only nine active players. It’s unfortunate and it could be argued that the coaching staff could have done a better job insulating the roster against all of the turnover. However, while the staff is responsible because it happened on their watch I don’t assign that much blame because many of the players who left or are unavailable (ex: Conde, Walker, Nawezhi) did so for reasons outside of the coaches control and it was too late for the coaches to compensate.
Barring massive injuries Florida State will return to the NCAA Tournament. Talent-wise FSU is good enough to make the Sweet 16 again (or further) if they stay healthy. However, when the lack of depth is factored in if the Noles are able to get past the second round this season should be considered a success.
FSU will travel to Austin to face #8 Texas on Sunday at 12:30pm (FS1).