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In recent years, Florida State has been, to be kind, a weak sister in basketball. Yet it's not like they have major dips in talent. They usually have at least a few guys who can play, and you can usually count on them either upsetting being close to upsetting one of the top teams in the conference.. But still, they seem to struggle to compete in the ACC. And losing Al Thornton won't help, either. But even though we kick ourselves every spring for saying this, we could see this team making some noise.
Thornton is a huge loss, of course. He's Florida State's first-ever lottery pick, and making a big impression in Clipper Land. But Leonard Hamilton returns one of the ACC's deeper backcourts, and some athletic forwards, and backs them up with two freshmen who can both block shots.
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In the backcourt, the 'Noles return Isaiah Swan, Ralph Mims, Toney Douglas, and Jason Rich. All are seniors except for Douglas, who is a fourth-year junior, having sat out a year after transferring from Jeff Lebo's Auburn program. It's been a flaky backcourt at times, frankly, physically capable of playing at the highest level, but also capable of just falling apart at times and being almost entirely ineffective.
Swann has said that he hasn't always played with complete focus, and that he would like to finish his career playing up to his potential. Mims and Rich have been quiet but reliable, although Rich has been a better defender than scorer. But any faults or renitence aside, there is any coach would like to have four upperclassmen like this in his backcourt.
Florida State has some talent at the forward positions, too. Swann has played there a fair amount, and may again, but he won't have to. Uche Echefu will likely be their most productive forward. The 6-9 Nigerian native is athletic and mobile, and is a tough matchup and he'll surely start.
They also return Ryan Reid and Casaan Breeden, 6-9 and 6-8 respectively. Neither player was particularly potent offensively last season, but they have some talent. Reid is at the least an effective reserve big man who can come in and bang. Breeden is a highly athletic player who could pick up some of Thornton's chores.
But both of those guys might take a step back as FSU introduces Solomon Alabi and Julian Vaughn. Alabi in particular has a reputation for blocking shots. He hasn't played the game for very long - only a few years - but he has a 7-3 wingspan and good timing.
Offensively, the sense has been that he's a project, but there are some rumblings this summer that he might be well ahead of schedule. But if he's merely a good shotblocker and rebounder, Hamilton won't argue.
At 6-10, Julian Vaughn is not as tall, but his arms also span 7-3, and he's also a good shotblocker. If they both pan out, it'll bring back memories of Jacksonville's Twin Towers of 7-3 Artis Gilmore and 7-2 Pembroke Burroughs. Burroughs, by the way, is now the most intimidating state trooper in the nation. When a 7-2 man gets out to give you a ticket, you don't argue.
When Vaughn was being recruited, several schools, including Duke and UNC, ultimately took a pass, thinking that his game was a bit soft. He'll look forward to the chance to prove them wrong.
Vaughn is also a rangy shooter, and his perimeter skills will fit in well with Alabi's post game. He's an intriguing player.
FSU also brings in Chris Blake, a 6-5 guard who may have to take a number to get any court time, and 6-7 Jordan DeMercy, who will have a shot at more time at small forward spot. He's said to be pretty athletic, and after Echefu and Swann, it could be his number that gets called.
To us, really, the guard questions for Florida State should be solved. They have three seniors and a fourth-year junior, and they've been through enough disasters to have learned from them. That ought to be one of the better backcourts around.
The question, really, comes down to whether they can incorporate the new big men into the system. If they can unleash the guards, and have two shotblockers to back them up, the defense could really be something else. They still need to work out the roles of the players in between the backcourt and the post, but between Echefu, Vaughn, Breeden, Reid, DeMercy, and perhaps Swann, they should be able to get it done.
Everyone will talk about Al Thornton being gone, and that's understandable. But even without Thornton, this team is talented and deep, and should be able to get an NCAA bid. As usual, Florida State didn't exactly schedule Murderer's Row, and if they don't go to their ACC opener at Georgia Tech at 16-0, fans should howl.
Their only reasonable non-conference challenges are going to be Minnesota, Butler, and Florida, and the first two are breaking in new coaches and systems. Meanwhile, Florida is all but starting over after losing basically every key player from their back-to-back title teams.
There has been some muttering about Leonard Hamilton's performance in Tallahassee. In general, we've supported him and counseled patience. But not now. If Florida State can't get past the NIT with this sort of talent, maybe it is time for a change.