Robert Johnson went to the crossroads and sold his soul to the devil, but unless you know something I don't, that’s probably not an option for FSU basketball. The ‘Noles will stay earthbound, and likely tie the record for most losses in program history this weekend in Miami (of FL). It’s obviously been a disaster, but what’s next for a program delivered from the ACC backwaters to become a nationally recognized #NewBlood brand, only to have it go up in flames this season?
State of the State
Four score and seven years.... Okay, one score years ago (that’s twenty, friends) FSU was arguably the worst high-major program in the nation. Leonard Hamilton came in, righted the ship, and produced what might have been the best team in FSU history - a team which had their dreams crushed by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and instead of ending in the Final Four, the season ended with a bunch of sad dudes hoisting an ACC trophy. From 2017 - 2021 FSU made an Elite 8 and two Sweet 16s, and the team that didn’t get to play would have been a 1 or 2-seed.
For an athletic department that barely tries to win at basketball, these results show how much Ham has meant to the school.
A little over a year ago, everything seemed fine. Almost halfway through conference play Florida State was in 1st place. But then the ‘Noles suffered a ridiculous number of injuries and the season fell off the cliff.
Fast forward to this past summer, and the bad news kept coming. Jaylen Gainey, expected starter and Ivy League defensive player of the year, blew out his knee. Freshman Chandler Jackson broke his thumb, fellow freshman Jeremiah Bembry was lost to a bad back, and De’Ante Green was queued up to redshirt after knee surgery. Baba Miller hurt his leg which caused him to miss summer workouts, and then we discovered the NCAA had suspended him for half a season (had been a full season before FSU appealed) over a spectacularly stupid rule.
So FSU was expected to struggle, but nowhere near the level we’ve actually seen. The Seminoles lost at home to Stetson and Troy, and then got swept at a Thanksgiving tourney which had set up the bracket for FSU to win. They showed some spark in December and January, but with the injuries continuing (Cam Fletcher lost for the year, Matthew Cleveland is battling what we’ll call back spasms), everything unraveled in February. Here we are.
What’s the problem?
FSU’s defense is bad. Like bad, bad. The current ACC head coaches have 99 years experience in conference play. In those 99 seasons, two teams have finished with a defense rated worse than 200th nationally. FSU is currently 260th. This from a coach who has had a national top-15 defense in almost half his seasons.
For those who haven’t been around for a while, Coach Hamilton completely scrapped his old defense after a trip to Greece where they worked out with the Greek National Team. He saw the light on positionless basketball several years before the rest of college coaches. And kudos to him, he made an immediate switch.
Why? Because it makes his offense better. That may not be intuitive, but it’s critical to understand what Florida State is trying to do. The basic idea is simple. Like the Golden State Warriors did when they revolutionized basketball, you put five guys on the floor who are interchangeable. Bigs can shoot. Smalls can post up. Everybody can defend. Everybody can lead the break. Basketball has become a ball-screen game (watch a game replay from the 90s, it’s wild), and having interchangeable guys meant you could just ignore ball screens and have your defenders switch responsibilities instead. Thus, you could neutralize the most effective play available.
The nuance in college basketball is that the shot clock is longer than the rest of the world (was 35, is now 30) , and if you give teams that much time to run offense, they can find the matchup they want, using screens get the right ballhandler switched onto the worst defender, and then attack. So to devalue that tactic, Ham combined his positionless system with a press defense. That press made it difficult for teams to run offense, and they often wouldn’t get comfortable until 10-12 seconds remained on the shot clock. At that point, it’s difficult to work for the best matchup, and instead you often end up with 1-on-1’s where the ballhandler has no advantage.
And since you’re pressing, and creating lots of deflections, you can use your litany of ballhandlers to run other teams into the ground. FSU’s best teams (2018-19, 2019-20) had defenses ranked 10th and 15th, and that enabled them to get plenty of fast break buckets, which elevated the offense.
This year’s team can’t press, so the opponent gets into their sets with 25 seconds left, and they can pick and choose whatever matchup they want. A recipe for disaster.
Can it be fixed?
The short answer is yes. It’s still a system ahead of the curve, but you must have the guys to run it. It expends a tremendous amount of energy (Trent Forrest says he couldn’t play more than 24 minutes a game at full speed) and so you need a deep roster. And it requires a bunch of really good athletes.
The better question is should it be fixed? Is it worth depending on a system that requires 11 healthy guys? Based on the Covid team, I’d say yes, but there’s no right answer.
Will it be fixed?
Well, here’s where the article might get a bit dark (to be fair, I opened this thing referencing a genius who lived a violent life and died at 27, and that, my homeys, is called foreshadowing).
The excuses to be bad are real. Yep, the injuries have been transformative. Yep, this roster is inexperienced. The newest one that Ham is pounding is that he was behind on the transfer portal, but considering that on a healthy roster, four of our five starters could have been transfers (and five of the top seven had Malik Osbourne returned as expected), I’m not really buying that one. Considering numerous players are likely departing at season’s end, it feels pre-packaged to allow a coach who will need to bring in multiple transfers to say “see, I got the memo.”
What I haven’t heard (and I tune in to every post game show) is any personal responsibility from the staff. And that’s a problem. It is abundantly clear that there are guys on this team unable to play positionless basketball (reminder: our defense is 260th). Every team we play has the same plan - take 10 seconds to get the matchup you want, then score mad points.
And Ham hasn’t adjusted. At all. Sure, we’ve seen a few possessions of zone, and a few more in drop coverage, but 95%+ of our defensive possessions have been switching screens across the board. Ham understands defense, having assembled numerous great ones, so why won’t he make a move?
The only optimistic answer is that he’s preparing guys for next year. And I don’t believe that to be the case over the numerous pessimistic explanations (like hubris, or giving up on this team, or a desire to just cash a paycheck, etc....).
You coach the team you have, not the one you want. And this team isn’t being prepared to win games.
Ham’s contract is up after next season. So if you make a move now you have to pay the new coach, plus the old coach (and toss in paying 2 head football coaches as well). And for that new coach you have to be prepared to put forth at least $2.75 mil a year to hire a solid mid-major coach. (Dennis Gates 6 yrs/ $16.5 mil, Todd Golden 6 yrs/ $18 mil)
Poaching a solid high-major coach is out of the question. With my rosiest (garnetiest) fan glasses on, I could probably keep a straight face and say that FSU is roughly a below average high-major job. With clear lenses, FSU is probably closer to the 25th percentile. We aren’t poaching an established coach.
So can FSU afford to pay two head basketball coaches and two head football coaches, AND come up with the money it takes to assemble a solid roster? Not likely.
So you either make a move with a high likelihood of tanking the program, and you give Ham another year to turn it around.
As mentioned, Ham’s contract is up, and so is Willie Taggart’s (remember him?). Plus Ham will be 75-years-old. Thus, the financial stars align.
Unless Coach Hamilton does something special, I think we can assume that his tenure runs out next year (if not this year). So where to turn? Ham currently makes $2.25 million. For reference, coaches at South Carolina, Pitt, Northwestern, Providence, Nebraska (not exactly the Blue Bloods) all make significantly more than $3 mil per year.
The solid mid major dude
Every year a few mid-majors look good, their coaches get snatched up by a high-major, and then they stink. Finding the right guy is tough (hello Steve Robinson). Personally, I think you call Paul Mills at Oral Roberts, or maybe Rob Senderoff is ready to leave Kent State. Plus, several others will crop up.
The assistant dude
Kellen Sampson (Houston) would be my first call if I’m Michael Alford. I know fans are infatuated with CY Young, but are we really sold on the guy who assembled our current roster? Or did he get when the getting was good? Multiple high-major schools have recently hired coaches with no head coaching experience - notably Arizona and Kansas State, so Sampson will likely land a good job soon.
The old dude
Until something changes, FSU doesn’t have the money to keep a young coach if they have desire for greater things. It’s a stepping stone job. So you take the FSU and Miami route, and hire an older coach looking for one last shot. Leon Rice (Boise State) fits here. You can also save money this way (Mike Young, VT, $2.2 mil).
The really old dude
What if Ham rights the ship and wants to continue? It’s certainly possible, as he’s always proven to have tricks up his sleeve. Say he guides FSU back to the dance, that would be 6 of 8 seasons, and 10 of 16. Can FSU do better than that? Pitt, NC State and Wake Forest all thought they could. All three programs are positioned well ahead of FSU in the pecking order, and they all cratered their basketball teams by moving on from a successful coach.
March is fast approaching, and that’s when the fun - even if you aren’t in the Dance - begins. It will be transfer season, and we’ll all be waiting for an announcement from Michael Alford’s office.