1. In 2020-21, Hamilton will experiment with lineup and rotations even more than usual
In Wednesday’s season-opening 86-58 win against North Florida, Florida State head coach Leonard Hamilton once again displayed the tremendous depth of his roster. Not only did 12 players play, they all saw action in both halves and all 12 entered the game within the first 7 minutes of the contest.
This wasn’t a surprise for anyone that has watched FSU basketball the past two decades. Hamilton usually looks to play around a dozen players in the first handful of games, or even the whole non-conference stretch, each season.
Just like other sports during the pandemic, basketball programs around the country are trying to make up for lost time. Expect Hamilton to double down to start this season on his approach to how he handles minutes throughout the roster. By my count, he used 8 different lineups in the first 16 minutes of the game.
“As a coach, we’re trying to feel them out. I am trying to come to grips with how to best utilize these guys in a game,” Hamilton said. “I’m just as inexperienced with coaching this team as they are inexperienced with playing with each other. That’s the challenge that we have.”
Last season, Hamilton utilized 11 different players on the road at Pittsburgh. However, 3 of the 11 played less than 7 minutes, as opposed to the UNF win Wednesday night. All 12 Noles played substantially, receiving at least 7 minutes or more.
Most importantly, Florida State has the luxury to experiment with the back-half of their roster. They are clearly quality players, as advertised. Senior 7-footer Tanor Ngom looked experienced and was active on the boards. Freshman Quincy Ballard was very smooth up and down the court and quick to get back on defense.
Unlike a normal start to the season, the Seminoles won’t have a full slate of weaker non-conference games to finely tune their lineup. It will be very interesting to see if the rotation is tightened or if any changes are made heading into this week.
On Wednesday night, Florida State takes on Indiana, as they’ll look to avenge their only double-digit loss last season. Then on Saturday afternoon, FSU looks to make it seven wins a row over rival Florida.
Even with a heightened level of competition, Florida State may ride it out with their top-12 for a while because of the combination of their strong depth and the situation the pandemic has presented.
“I’m still learning exactly who do I play in certain situations,” said Hamilton. “How do we rotate those guys, how do they fit in certain situations, right now, is something that as a head coach I am still trying to figure out myself.”
2. Koprivica yet another example of impressive individual development for the Noles
In the first start of his career against North Florida, center Balsa Koprivica showcased a complete game on both sides of the court. During the Noles’ recent run to national prominence, one constant has been a long list of FSU role players who show significant improvement each season they are on campus.
As Florida State’s second-leading scorer in their opener despite just 17 minutes of action, the 7-1’ sophomore is already establishing himself as the next Seminole to take a big leap forward. The Serbian put up 13 points, grabbed 5 boards, shot 50-percent from the field, and knocked down 5-of-6 from the line.
In addition to showing great touch around the rim, Koprivica was a force on defense as well with 2 blocks and a steal. He also extended possessions with 2 offensive rebounds. It was an impressive, efficient outing for the young big man.
“I was pleased that Balsa was able to go in, and he had his moments where he showed he is improving along with the other guys,” said head coach Leonard Hamilton.
Perhaps even more impressive is the near-guaranteed progression of virtually every single Florida State “role” player the past half-decade. Just last season alone, RaiQuan Gray, Anthony Polite, and Wyatt Wilkes stepped up from role players receiving lower minutes in 2018-19 to major contributors and big-time shot-makers for the ACC Champions in 2019-20.
And let’s not forget the in-house developments of Mfiondu Kabengele, Phil Cofer, P.J. Savoy, and Christ Koumadje just in the past few years. Everyone knows Devin Vassell came in as a “lower” recruit and left FSU as a star and NBA lottery pick. The list goes on and on.
“The theme of our team is that those guys have improved. The returning guys. I think you see that in Evans, Polite, Gray, Osborne,” Hamilton said. “I like the progress those guys have made along with Balsa.”
Obviously, most college athletes progress from their freshman seasons to their senior year. But there’s never a guarantee that each player that signs out of high school will advance their skills at the pace that Hamilton’s players regularly do.
Perhaps no basketball program in the country has the hit rate with their student-athletes taking the next step in their careers like the FSU basketball program has recently. For Koprivica, his well-rounded game could emerge to become lethal in the next few seasons.
In the meantime, the center is already poised for a breakout season in 2020-21. As Florida State continues to bring in a higher percentage of players who will stay in college for three or four years (unlike traditional blue-blood programs), they will continue to prosper from their excellent player development.
3. Florida State’s strong infrastructure will prove to be crucial to handle disjointed season
As much as any program in the country can be, FSU is set-up to succeed during what promises to be a strange and rocky 2020-21 NCAA men’s basketball season.
While other schools the Noles face may be breaking in new coaching staffs, Florida State has operated under the same regime since nearly the turn of the century. With Leonard Hamilton in his 19th season as head coach, and Stan Jones being one of the longest-tenured assistant coaches in the country, FSU could have a distinct advantage handling the unpredictable nature of the pandemic season.
“We always try to prepare our guys for the unexpected. These are new times we are dealing with,” said Hamilton. “The main thing we gotta do is just try and stay safe during this unprecedented time. Dealing with stuff that you’ve really never had to deal with.”
Also, FSU also has a fairly experienced roster. Taking into account players like Tanor Ngom and Malik Osborne and their time at other previous stops, 8 of the 12 players in Florida State’s current rotation have multiple seasons of major playing time at the collegiate level. Like most years, the Seminoles are a deep squad.
They’re also a dominant team, and they return plenty of key pieces from an incredible season last year. That’s why Florida State isn’t letting anything, even the unstable nature of this season, stain their breaming pride surrounding the direction the program has taken.
Speaking of last year, they’re seemingly able to shake off the devastation of last season’s cancellation of the conference and national tournaments from their psyche.
Projected as a clear-cut number one seed in 2019-20, FSU basketball already had a “worst-case scenario” play out with pandemic cancellations. A season-opening date with Gardner-Webb, or any regular season game, getting cancelled or moved around pales in comparison to what they went through last March.
Perhaps, that has freed Florida State up to attack this season with an upbeat, positive attitude. No matter how the schedule plays out (as long as they meet the required minimum of 13 games), there is no doubt that they could be poised for another run at a high seed in the tournament again this year.