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Basketball Observations: FSU overwhelms Gonzaga, earns dominating Sweet 16 win

The Seminoles are now 5-1 under Coach Hamilton in NCAA Tournament games in which they are the lower seed.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-West Regional-Florida State vs Gonzaga Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Florida State took the court in Los Angeles with very few giving them a chance at victory, but used devastating athleticism to execute a near flawless game plan. In the end, the Seminoles walked away with a 75-60 win and a spot in the Elite Eight.

Above the Rim:

  • Way back in November, when most FSU fans were preoccupied with the sport that has an oblong shaped ball, our own Michael Rogner penned this fantastic article about “positionless basketball” being here to stay at FSU. If you haven’t read it, you should go do so now—I’ll wait. If you have read it...well go check out the comment section for some pretty prophetic stuff (like colorod0’s comment about needing a healthy Trent Forrest). Okay, welcome back. Last night was that article come to life. Leonard Hamilton is, once again, ahead of the curve in college basketball. And the scary part is, we still don’t fully have a stable of guys who can all execute this system as it’s intended. For the first time in a while, FSU really did use depth against Gonzaga in the classical sense of the term. With sheer volume of players. But this was born out of necessity due to foul trouble, not because FSU actually goes 12 deep. However, what continues to be evident in this NCAA Tournament run is FSU’s “depth” of guys who can all fill a similar role, and be ready in the moment to step up and do their job. Some of that is a testament to this coaching staff for developing players. Player development is this staff’s bread and butter; an area in which they truly shine. But some of it is also because it’s easier to cross-train guys to play three positions (ball handler, wing, and post) than it is to cross-train for five...and it’s certainly a lot harder to scout against as well.
  • I’ve seen a number of questions from national media and FSU fans alike wondering, “where has this been all season long.” As if to say that somehow this team underachieved during the season, or wasn’t focused, and now all of the sudden they are playing as they should have all along. This is just silly and is a dead giveaway that the person asking this question hasn’t really been following the team. As discussed in depth last week, this team has had a number of injuries that caused key contributors to either miss extended time or have their play impacted. Further, it’s a team full of first and second year players. Seven of the 10 rotational players are in either their first or second year in the program, and an eighth (Phil Cofer) battled injuries his sophomore and junior years, limiting his actual time on the court. Developing confidence, not just in what value you bring to the team but also understanding each of your teammates’ strengths and areas for growth, takes time. Learning how to win takes time. And frankly, playing in a league as unforgiving as the ACC doesn’t always allow for that growth to occur while still getting a “W.” Every team in the ACC (okay, maybe not Pitt) can beat you if you don’t have your best game that night. So where has this been? It’s been in development.
  • Gonzaga is a talented and experienced team, but it’s also a team that had not faced a lot of length and athleticism like FSU. And that showed. Yes, the loss of Killian Tillie was big, as he is the kind of long, athletic talent that is so commonplace in the ACC. But even with him, Gonzaga’s guards would have still struggled with FSU’s length and ability to pressure the ball. Truth be told, I kind of saw this coming. I told the TN basketball staff in prep for this matchup that if we executed the kind of downhill game plan I expected to see from Hamilton, a double-digit win wouldn’t shock me. But having the capability to do something and actually executing are two drastically different things. Tip of the cap to the team for getting the job done.
  • The barking is growing louder. For much of this season, FSU’s once famed “junkyard dog” defense languished down around 90th nationally. There were stretches where we didn’t seem capable of stopping anyone off the dribble. Then Forrest got healthy. Then Kabangele emerged. Then Ike started better grasping the system. And all of the sudden, pressure could be extended a bit more, rotations were sharper, and shots started getting swatted at an elite rate. Currently, FSU’s defense is up to 44th on the season, more than 30 spots better than at the conclusion of the ACC Tournament. There is still room to improve. Guys struggle to consistently identify shooters in transition—that might be huge against Michigan—and defensive rebounding is a concern. But it’s markedly better than two months ago.

Court Level:

  • The KenPom MVP of the game, Terance Mann was brilliant. He was aggressive to the basket, while playing under control. He was active on the defensive glass. He was disruptive on defense. And he both finished and set up others to finish in transition. One of the few guys on the team who is truly “experienced,” the junior wing did exactly what his team needed him to do on the big stage.
  • As mentioned above, the emergence of Mfiondu Kabengele has been critical for the Seminoles this season. Raw and fairly new to the game, Kabengele redshirted last season and took a little while to really find his groove. While he’s still a long way off from reaching his sky-high ceiling, it’s clear things are really starting to slow down for the hybrid wing/post player. He erased 4 shots against Gonzaga, clearly getting into the Bulldogs’ heads. He was also aggressive to basket and forced Zags’ big man Rui Hachimura into foul trouble.
  • CJ Walker had only made one long-distance shot in his last seven games. However, when his team needed someone to hit some open looks against the Gonzaga zone, Walker stepped up big time. His three threes were his only points on the night, but they allowed FSU to re-take momentum after Gonzaga had gone on a 15-0 run. Walker also had big contributions on defense, snatching two steals and blocking a shot as well.
  • M.J. Walker has been in some kind of slump. It’s common for freshmen to “hit the wall” late in their first season and M.J. seems to have done just that, going 3-23 from deep since February 10th—including 0 for his last 12. However, the young gun hasn’t hung his head. Instead, he came out attacking and got to the FT line early. He also looked to set up teammates (3 assists, tied for his career high), valued the basketball (zero turnovers), and was a huge part of FSU’s “small-ball” lineup after the post players all racked up early fouls.
  • Ike Obiagu only played 10 minutes, but they were an effective 10 minutes. His slam dunks set the tone early and his 6 rebounds (5 defensive) were critical in closing out possessions. And while he was only credited with one block, it was obvious that Gonzaga shooters were aware of his presence.
  • Brandon Allen might have had one of the bigger plays in the game. Only used in spot duty for the season, the senior walk-on had his number called thanks to the early foul trouble. All he did in two minutes was grab an offensive rebound, get an assist, and then make a buzzer-beating jumper to send the ‘Noles into halftime with momentum clearly on their side. That’s called being ready for your moment.

Looking Ahead:

Into the Elite Eight for the first time since 1993, Florida State now takes on the 3rd seeded Michigan Wolverines. Winners of 12 straight, Michigan is the 4th best team left in the tournament according to KenPom and will be the toughest opponent FSU has faced yet. They are elite at protecting the basketball, elite on defense, and elite on the defensive glass. The last time these two teams met was in the Bahamas during the early part of the 2014 season, an 82-80 Michigan win in OT that very likely cost the ‘Noles an NCAA Tourney bid. The Seminole Revenge Tour continues Saturday night with tip scheduled for around 8:50pm eastern.