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FSU men’s basketball enters important stretch of games

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Can’t pull a Kentucky.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round- Florida State vs Murray State David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

The basketball season, especially in a league like the ACC, is a tough grind. Players balance classes, final exams, holiday season, flu and cold season, a new set of classes, mid-terms, and more all while traveling around the country to play 2-3 games a week for five months, some of which come with just a day of rest. I’m exhausted just typing it out. Needless to say, it’s impossible to be on your “A” game every night out. Losses are assured of happening, with most teams dropping at least one game a year that from the outside looking in appears to be a real head scratcher.

Accordingly, I like to look at the basketball schedule in compartmentalized sections as opposed to hyper-focusing on every single game. Phase one was the rare two true-road games to start the season. Opening up 0-2 was a legit possibility and my goal for the couplet was finding a way to get to 1-1. Mission accomplished (and in the more advantageous manner for the resume, to boot!).

Speaking of the 1-1 start, allow me a brief side bar. You might have noticed there was no observations piece after the UF game. There were a couple reasons for this:

a) Life isn’t always the best collaborator

2. Rogner’s ITBS was fantastic and really captured stats and key observations. Check it out if you haven’t.

D - The team played fairly similar to how they did against Pitt, the biggest differences being far fewer fouls called and UF not hitting 9 threes like Pitt did. The interior D (led by Malik Osborne) was again incredible. Trent Forrest was again sub-optimal in the first half and tremendous in the second. Patrick Williams again had a couple of wow moments, but was quiet overall. RaiQuan Gray was again crafty with the ball and displayed good vision. Wyatt Wilkes again made decent contribitions in limited minutes. Anthony Polite again was strong on D and inconsistent (but improved) on O. But M.J Walker and Devin Vassell played a full game instead of one half, and that made a massive difference.

Okay, side-bar over.

With the 1-1 start accomplished, FSU now heads into a critical second phase of games that consist of four completely outclassed opponents all coming to Tuck, beginning with 196th ranked (per KenPom) Western Carolina tonight at 7pm. Yes, you read that correctly. Four games that are virtually unlosable would take a Kentucky/Evansville type of shock to lose represent a “critical” phase of games. Need convincing? Allow me.

Cannot lose

Losing any one of the four games would do at least a seed line worth of damage come March. It’s that simple. Western Carolina is actually the highest ranked of the four opponents, with the next three coming in at 284th, 209th, and 353rd—as in dead last—on KenPom. The last time FSU dropped a game to an opponent that finished below 175th was the 2013 home opener to South Alabama, a team that would conclude the season at 194. It is imperative that I be able to type that sentence again next year.

NET style points

Last year, the NCAA finally ditched the RPI (sort of, not completely) and incorporated the NET rankings. Unlike the RPI, the NET factors in more than just whether you won or lost, including performance metrics as well. Now, the margin of victory component is technically capped at 10, but as I outlined in this piece last year, the truth is that’s not how it actually plays out. Because the efficiency component is not capped, teams are rewarded for beating the crap out of cupcakes. Home wins themselves really aren’t worth all that much, earning just 0.6 of a win. So in order for FSU to truly take advantage of this stretch of games, they need to not just win but win convincingly. I’m talking 15+ points in every game, with 20 or more being ideal.

Get healthy

The men in garnet and gold are beat up. Big Dom is working back from a calf injury and only played 5 minutes in the first two games. Walker had a leg injury that cost him much of pre-season practice. Williams has also been limited by a leg injury. Trent Forrest didn’t practice the week of the UF game due to being sick. And touted JUCO transfer Rayquan Evans is recovering from a torn hamstring. Florida State needs to find a way to allow these guys to work on specific components of their game while also getting healthy in preparation for phase three of the schedule (the Thanksgiving tourney and @Indiana).

Build functional depth

Leonard Hamilton’s system relies on 10-12 guys capable of contributing in order to best execute. And the only way to get more comfortable and more effective in the system is to execute it at game speed. In order for the Seminoles to be a force come March, the bench (and even some of the new starters) needs to make strides in the games played now. Wilkes has flashed a bit in limited action and he needs to build more confidence during this stretch. Polite needs to continue gain consistency on offense. Williams just needs reps and court time. Balsa Koprivika needs to get acclimated to college level speed and physicality. Will we see Nate Jack play at all or is he headed for redshirt? You’ll likely know by the end of these four games. Even Harrison Prieto could use some court time to become completely comfortable in the role he needs to play in games where foul trouble crops up. Can Osborne start to become a perimeter threat? Can Walker continue to show improvements as a slasher?

Two weeks from now, FSU’s record will very likely be 5-1. The Seminoles might even find themselves ranked. But don’t just aimlessly watch these (hopefully) blowouts, try to see if some of the above can begin to take shape. What will be the top 3-5 things you’d like to see?