The Florida State men’s basketball team exceeded nearly everyone’s preseason expectations—and that was before the magical March run to the Elite 8. Don’t believe me? Just read this recap of the regular season published a couple weeks ago, when we were already calling this one of the top-5 coaching jobs by Leonard Hamilton while at FSU (one interesting note—the defense played so well during the NCAA Tournament, it rose from 76th at the time of that recap to 33rd...about 10 spots ahead of the offense). The tournament run ended in the Elite Eight due to numerous missed opportunities (cough, turnovers, cough) in the 1st half and too many missed shots in the 2nd period. However, in leading this inexperienced group of Seminoles to within one win of the Final Four, it’s now arguably the best coaching job of Leonard Hamilton’s career (I could listen to an argument for the 1999 Miami team, or the 2012 FSU squad, but I digress).
The thing is, deep NCAA Tournament runs are fun, but many teams, coaches, and programs experience one random run in March. That’s the nature of a one-and-done tournament in a high-variance sport such as college basketball. Enduring programs of relevance are built not on the back of a Cinderella run; rather, they consistently make it to March Madness in the first place.
FSU enjoyed four consecutive NCAA Tourney bids during the early part of this decade, but then a series of recruiting misses—and one too many losses in 2014—led to four straight disappointing seasons. Xavier Rathan-Mayes, Dwayne Bacon, Jonathan Isaac, Michael Ojo, and the “Boom Squad” emphatically turned the ship around in 2017. Terance Mann, Phil Cofer, Trent Forrest, and the rest of the “18 Strong” squad grabbed the baton and took FSU to heights not seen in a quarter century. Now, with most of the team returning, the Seminoles are looking to “dance” for the third straight season. And once you get to March, anything’s possible. Just ask Sister Jean.
As we start to turn the page to next season, let’s make one thing clear: it’s really early. Remember, FSU isn’t playing in a vacuum, and there are still hundreds of high school and college players (and coaches) who will make decisions that will impact their programs. Not to mention, injuries and player development. Nonetheless, let’s take a look at how things project as of today.
Who is gone for sure?
Braian Angola is the only scholorship guy we know for sure won’t be playing in Tallahassee next year. The senior from Colombia will be missed. He stretched defenses with his perimeter shooting, was the 4th best free throw shooter (by percentage) in the conference during league play, had the second best assist rate on the team, and was a pest on defense.
Brandon Allen has also exhausted his eligibility. The Seminole legacy and former minor league baseball player hit a 1st half buzzer beater against Gonzaga, giving FSU a surge of momentum in their Sweet 16 upset. He was also a solid defender during his time at FSU, capable of covering multiple positions in spot-duty situations where guys were in foul trouble or injured.
Key pieces likely to return
There’s a rule of thumb in Tallahassee to “never count Coach Ham’s scholarships.” That said, it’s very possible nearly every other key contributor returns. Perhaps the more important question—and one we won’t know the answer to for quite some time—is who makes the biggest leap in their individual development? Let’s break things down by position:
- CJ Walker - Sophomore who looked dynamic at times, nagged by injuries late in the season. Needs to take better care of the basketball and finish more consistently around the basket.
UPDATE: Earlier today, Walker announced his intent to transfer from Florida State:
After an amazing 2 Year’s at Florida State University! I’ve learned so much here! I’m grateful and appreciative of Coach Ham and the staff for giving me this opportunity! With that being said I will be moving on to a new situation to succeed in my academic/basketball career! pic.twitter.com/V1eFFpyncv— Cj Walker (@Cj_Walker1) March 27, 2018
- Trent Forrest - Hampered by an injury to start the year, Forrest was arguably FSU’s best player after February 1st. The ACC leader in free throw rate, Trent needs to continue to improve his stroke at the charity stripe, while developing at least the threat of a perimeter shot. It’d also be nice if he took his defense from very good to elite. He’s young for his class (he won’t turn 20 until June and is actually younger than M.J. Walker), so I expect Trent to make another significant jump this off-season.
- Terance Mann - Led FSU in scoring for much of the season, before dealt with injuries and fatigue down the stretch. The ultimate stat-stuffer, Terance must continue to develop his shooting stroke and his confidence. Too many possessions were thrown off schedule because Mann passed up an open shot. If he can become a 70+% FT shooter (.655 this year) and a 32-33% three-point shooter (.273 for his career), Mann could have an All-ACC senior season. Improving as a defensive rebounder would be ideal, as well.
- M.J. Walker - Some might wonder why I don’t have him listed as a “ball-handler,” but it’s hard to call a guy with a turnover rate nearly twice as high as his assist rate a ball-handler. As is the case with most freshmen, M.J. just needs to become more consistent, especially on defense. He’s the most-likely candidate to fill Angola’s starting role, so his development is critical this summer. Becoming a 40% three point shooter would be rather beneficial to the overall offense.
- Mfiondu Kabengele - “Fi” (pronounced “fee”) just had the 5th best offensive rating for any freshman at FSU in the Leonard Hamilton era (1-4 in order: Jonathan Isaac, Malik Beasley, Terance Mann, and Devon Bookert). Not too shabby for a 3* “project”. He’s also the best statistical rebounder on the team by a wide margin. Consistency—and staying out of foul trouble—will be crucial in taking his game to the next level, along with maintaining his energy and efficiency as his minutes increase, which often comes down to conditioning.
- PJ Savoy - The hero of the Xavier game, Savoy is simply a sniper. 86% of the shots in his FSU career have been threes, and he’s made more than 38% of them. However, I see potential for more...if he’s willing to put in the work. Savoy displayed improved quickness and awareness on defense after returning from a mid-season injury, and it needs to be carried over into next season. It would also be nice if he used his three-point prowess to keep the defense on its heels a little more by drawing defenders, before delivering a pass to an open teammate. Improved shot selection could lead to improved efficiency. He should study tape of Tim Pickett’s senior year all off-season.
- Christ Koumadje - The junior big man had an up and down season. He started looking vastly improved, before missing 11 games due to injury. Unfortunately, he never quite regained his early-season form. Continuing to add weight is a must, especially below the waist. He’s improved his free throw shooting every year on campus and that, too, must continue. If he could develop a more consistent back-to-the-basket move (like the two shots he missed early in the 2nd half against Michigan), that would make FSU’s offense much more balanced. Improved footwork in space on defense would be nice, too.
- Ike Obiagu - Extremely raw on offense (he’s only played basketball for a couple years), Ike needs countless reps. His best ball is still 2-3 years away, but based on Stan Jones’ development of bigs such as Michael Ojo, Solomon Alabi, Alexander Johnson, Bernard James, and more, I’m not too concerned. On defense, Obiagu is a savant. His block rate (the percent of Ike’s blocked shots/opponent 2 point attempts while he was on the court) was literally off the charts. If he played enough minutes to qualify, Obiagu would have led the nation...with a figure 30.8% higher than second! In fact, Ike’s 20.9% block rate would have been the highest in the nation since at least 2004 (again, if his minutes qualified)!! However, if he wants to play more minutes, he’ll have to improve his foul rate of 6.6/40 minutes. And he needs to shoot at least 50% from the free throw line, as well.
As of this writing, FSU has just one player signed (or committed). Devin Vassell is a late-blooming, 6’5 combo guard from the Atlanta metro-area. He was a virtual unknown before the ’Noles offered last April. Texas Tech, his only other high-major offer (that Chris Beard guy seems to know a thing or two about talent evaluation...), offered two days later, but Vassell was already sold on the Seminoles and committed shortly after. Then, he blew up his senior year, became a top-175 recruit—and even that might be undervaluing him—and is drawing comparisons to another late-blooming, big guard from Gwinnett County, former UConn star and Charlotte Hornets guard, Jeremy Lamb.
Perhaps even more intriguing, though, are the potential additions of the three redshirts from the 2017 recruiting class, Wyatt Wilkes, Anthony Polite, and RaiQuan Gray. Each were top-200 recruits and each brings a nice skill set to the court. All three can shoot, and Gray, in particular, could be a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses if he disciplines himself and conditions his body to play in FSU’s uptempo offense and intense, man-to-man defense. We’ll talk about these guys more as the season nears. Top programs such as Villanova and Virginia have seen success by redshirting quality recruits, and it certainly paid off for Kabengele and Florida State this past season.
Phil Cofer just played his fourth season. However, he missed the majority of his sophomore year due to injury. He’s applied for a 5th year, but his status is even more uncertain than normal because he technically played in a slightly higher percentage of games than is allowed for standard medical redshirts. It’s also the NCAA, so you never know what’ll happen, but if he’s able to return, FSU’s wing depth goes from good to great, and the ’Noles gain a vocal leader who has earned the respect of his teammates. If Phil’s unable to return, I’d look for FSU to add a JUCO or grad transfer.
What are reasonable expectations?
Barring a big bite from the injury bug, I’d be surprised if FSU didn’t return to the NCAA Tournament. Their seed will be dependent on several undetermined factors, including OOC strength of schedule, early departures from other ACC programs, and the unbalanced ACC schedule. But I think an ACC finish anywhere from 3rd-6th feels realistic, which would set the Seminoles up for a top-6 seed in the NCAA Tournament, assuming a solid non-conference performance. From that point, it’s all about matchups and getting hot.
Speaking of the ACC, we’ll take an early look at the rest of the ACC in the near future, as more of the rosters start to take shape. In the meantime, give us your thoughts. What improvements would you like to see from returning players? What are your expectations? Who do you project to start? Which lineup plays the most minutes?