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Basketball Observations: FSU opens season with a tough loss at Pittsburgh

The Seminoles will be in last place in the ACC for a while.

NCAA Basketball: Florida State at Pittsburgh Charles LeClaire-USA TODAY Sports

For the second consecutive year the Florida State Seminoles lost in the “Oakland Zoo”, this time falling 63-61 after Trent Forrest’s jumper rimmed out with about a second left. FSU falls to 0-1 on the young season.

Above the Rim:

  • Beginning this season, the ACC moved to a 20-game conference schedule. In order to fit in all the games, the league decided to have 14 of 15 teams open the season with a conference opponent. While many of the games were close, the play on the court was, shall we say...less than pretty? The Pitt/FSU game was no exception. Both defenses appeared well ahead of the offenses, which isn’t unusual this early. While many top teams were working out the kinks against opponents like North Florida, Wagner, and South Carolina State, ACC teams were figuring out rotations in games that have major implications come March. I’m fine with 20 league games, and I don’t even mind playing a game or two in November, but how about waiting until at least game 2?
  • For the second straight year there was a massive discrepancy in fouls, particularly in the first half. And for the second straight year, it had a massive impact on the game. The game opened with M.J. Walker and Devin Vassell picking up two fouls in the first 100 seconds. This promptly earned them a seat on the bench for the entire half (more on this in a moment). Without FSU’s two most proven perimeter shooters, Pitt sagged off and packed the lane, and the Seminoles struggled to make the Panthers pay. In the second half, Pittsburgh was in the double bonus with more than 7 minutes left in the game, making it tough for the ’Noles to string together stops for the final 20% of the game. On top of that, FSU had three big bodies foul out, in Malik Osborne, Raiquan Gray, and freshman seven-footer Balsa Koprivica, which was compounded by FSU’s other seven footer (grad transfer Dominik Olejniczak) missing the game due to injury. Meanwhile, Pitt had just one player reach four fouls. While it wasn’t as bad as last season when Pitt had a 100% (!) FT rate (compared to 47% for FSU), it was close, as the Panthers had a 61% FT rate (compared to 28% for the Seminoles).
  • Leonard Hamilton has made some incredible transformations during his career as a head coach. He’s often at the cutting edge of basketball trends. But his approach to sitting players who pick up two 1st half fouls is still stuck in the 1980s, and it proved costly against Pitt. As mentioned, Walker and Vassell both sat for 18 first-half minutes after picking up multiple fouls. Sitting one for the half is understandable. But both? In a road game with an inexperienced roster? With the two starters on the bench, FSU was forced to play reserve Wyatt Wilkes and walk-on Harrison Prieto major minutes and while neither cost the Seminoles the game, they simply don’t pressure an opponent like Walker and Vassell. This allowed Pitt to stay in the game despite woeful shooting in the opening stanza, with the teams tied 25-25 at the half. Vassell, who’s never committed more than three fouls in his FSU career (albeit in limited minutes), promptly opened the 2nd half with a personal 7-0 run, helping FSU build a 9 point lead. You think he would’ve been useful in the 1st half? Oh, and he finished the game with just two fouls.
  • FSU’s interior defense was fantastic. Secondary rotations were crisp most of the game, and Osborne, Patrick Williams, Koprivika, and Gray were physical and intimidating. For the game, FSU held Pitt to just 7-25 shooting on twos (28%), and that’s without Big Dom. That’s enormously encouraging for this young team.
  • Coach Hamilton wasn’t pleased when the ACC schedule makers handed him this opener, and it’s easy to see why. Not only was FSU breaking in a bevy of new guys on the road; Pitt also had the fortune of taking their once-every-four year European summer trip, affording the Panthers coveted extra practice time. And FSU visits the Florida Gators on Sunday. Not a great recipe for an inexperienced team with several injured players. If you’ve been following the basketball articles the last few weeks, you might’ve noticed I’ve been quietly warning about an 0-2 start. The ’Noles are now halfway there. That said, I saw more positives than negatives (the number of deflections was outstanding) and feel really good about what this team could be come January or February.

Court Level:

  • Forrest was downright bad in the first half. I can’t remember the last time he looked that out of sorts. With FSU up 18-12 midway through the 1st, Forrest had three consecutive possessions with baffling decisions that directly led to Pitt gaining back the lead at 19-18. The behind the back pass in the paint...I don’t even know where to begin. Then came 2nd half Trent where he was brilliant and nearly willed Florida State back to a gutsy win. I don’t know if he was just putting too much pressure on himself, or if Vassell and Walker sitting out the half threw him off his rhythm? But whatever it was, it can’t continue if FSU is to reach its peak—and the senior point guard will be the first to tell you he’s capable of so much more.
  • Anthony Polite was bizarro world-Forrest. Polite was fantastic on offense and defense in the 1st half, at times carrying FSU. He looked confident in his stroke and made his presence felt on both ends. But the 2nd half was a tough one for the youngster still figuring out his enhanced role. With FSU up nine and Vassell white-hot, Polite had a couple rushed shots, and a turnover, allowing Pitt back into the game. After that, his confidence seemed shaken, and he committed a couple more errors. In total, Polite showed some real improvement in stretches, but like Forrest he needs to become more consistent.
  • Vassell makes a huge difference in how teams guard FSU. He’s lethal off the catch and showed improvements off the dribble, as well. He stumbled late in the game after FSU drew up a play for him. He’ll be disappointed by that, but he carried FSU for stretches and has a chance to be a difference-maker this year. He just needs to stay out of foul trouble.
  • Osborne is still struggling to finish around the basket, but his interior defense was simply fantastic. Just superb. That was really encouraging. He finished with four blocked shots (career-high) and nine rebounds (team-high).
  • Gray is incredibly crafty with his penetration and ability to finish through traffic. His Euro-step in the 1st half was a thing of beauty, and he routinely surprised defenders with his quickness. He can be out of position/control at times on defense, but I liked what I saw in the opener.
  • Walker looked understandably rusty while he works his way back from injury. He hit some big time free throws, but it was a tough night. I’m sure sitting in the 1st half didn’t help him get in rhythm. He also picked up a flagrant foul that was questionable, but unnecessary. Hopefully the junior comes back strong against UF.
  • Speaking of big-time free throws, Williams drained a pair late in the game to give FSU a chance. Other than that, it was a quiet game for the highly-touted freshman. That’s not all too uncommon for youngsters, and in a game with so many fouls it was hard for him to do what he does best—get out and run. My guess is we’ll really see Williams begin to emerge during the four-game home stretch after UF. Nonetheless, this was a learning experience.
  • Wilkes and Prieto came in and played extended minutes and didn’t look too out of place. Kudos to them for being ready and keeping FSU in the game. It’d be great to have functional depth in the new year.
  • Nathanael Jack only played three minutes, which is odd considering the foul trouble. I hope it’s just a case of him not being quite ready for a big-time opponent and not an injury. FSU needs his shooting to stretch opposing defenses this season.

Looking Ahead:

FSU heads to Gainesville for a Sunday showdown against a Florida Gator squad that is arguably as talented as any team in the country. The Seminoles have won five straight in the series, but getting to six will take an upset. Of course, Leonard Hamilton has had Mike White’s number, so don’t write off the ’Noles.