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ACC Preview #8 - Florida State

Are the ‘Noles ready to roll again?

Syracuse v Florida State
: TALLAHASSEE, FL - FEBRUARY 15: Head Coach Leonard Hamilton of the Florida State Seminoles speaks with the media after the game against the Syracuse Orange at the Donald L. Tucker Center on February 15, 2020 in Tallahassee, Florida. Florida State defeated Syracuse 80 to 77.
Photo by Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

When you look around the ACC, there are really only four coaches who have transformed their programs: Mike Kryzyzewski has taken Duke to an iconic, global level. Jim Boeheim took a nice regional program and made it a national power. Tony Bennett made Virginia a threat to win 30 games annually. And Leonard Hamilton has taken Florida State from a, well, joke to a team that could win a national championship.

They probably won’t, but they could. We’ll get back to the skepticism later.

We thought that last year was their great chance. That team had a lot of talent and unity and was riding a hot hand. If the season had continued, we’re sure they would have made a deep run and might have gotten to the Final Four.

FSU finished first in the conference last year and when the ACC tournament was canceled, the ‘Noles were declared champions. They would have been no worse than a three seed and almost certainly a two.

That team suffered some heavy losses: Devin Vassell and Patrick Williams left early to get paid while reliable Trent Forrest is out of time.

Hamilton returns some solid talent though with 6-5 senior M.J. Walker, 6-8 junior RaiQuan Gray, 6-9 junior Malik Osborne, 6-6 junior Anthony Polite, 6-4 senior RayQuan Evans, 7-1 sophomore Balsa Koprivica and 6-6-8 senior Wyatt Wilkes. Nathaniel Jack, a 6-5 senior, and 6-2 sophomore Cleveland Yates didn’t get much time but also return.

Walker is listed on the official roster but Wikipedia says he’s playing in Israel.

Most of these guys have the size, athleticism and versatility that Hamilton prizes, but not Koprivica. He’s huge.

Yet at 7-1 and 260, he still didn't look defined last year. He has the potential to become an extremely powerful big man and he’s more skilled than the stiffs Hamilton typically brings in.

Gray is also bulky at 6-8 and 260. The ‘Noles will have some muscle around the basket.

Florida State adds 6-6 JUCO Sardaar Calhoun and at least two freshmen: 6-9 Scottie Barnes and 6-11 Quincy Ballard.

We say at least because FSU has been trying to get 7-3 Naheem McCloud enrolled for two seasons. This summer he supposedly made it but he’s not listed on the official site (update: looks like he’s on target for next year).

Barnes is very highly regarded and was a target for Duke as well. FSU actually beat out Kentucky in the end, and that’s amazing.

He may need to expand his offensive game, but on defense, he’s a monster. He can defend just about any position other than maybe point. He’s going to be a major factor from Day One and his defensive ability means he’ll almost certainly start. He’ll also be one of the best freshmen in the ACC. He’s likely a future lottery pick.

We expect Calhoun to be good as well. He shot 43 percent from deep in JUCO and should be a factor for Florida State on both ends but they’ll really need him on offense.

You may not know much about Ballard because he was somewhat anonymous in high school but check this out: he can dunk from the foul line.

Nothing new there, more than a couple of guys can do it, but a 6-11 guy with that kind of hops has the potential to be a devastating interior defender. You wonder how Jim Boeheim let him get away since he’s a native of Syracuse (although he played high school ball in Winston-Salem). In Boeheim’s defense, he wasn’t heavily recruited.

He also has an intriguing grad transfer in Tanor Ngom, a 7-1 native of Senegal who played in Canada at Ryerson. Ngom gives Hamilton his usual third big to clog up the inside.

However you look at it, Florida State has the usual formula: tons of athletic mid-sized players who can funnel the defense to the middle where Hamilton’s collection of Very Tall Men await to depress shooting percentages.

Look at the players he can plug in to defend, and consider the versatility of this group: Gray, Osborne, Calhoun, Polite, Barnes, Walker and Evans.

There are no important players on this this roster under 6-4 and three 6-11 or taller. It’s classic Hamilton.

Evans and Calhoun should provide solid three point shooting and Wilkes can heat up in limited minutes but a lot of guys are going to have to step up. Vassell was the leading rebounder and scorer while Forrest was the main assist man and also led in steals. Williams led in blocks - just one per, but still.

In the main, it won’t matter. Florida State will push to get in transition as always, and will win a lot of games just by wearing opponents down.

Most of FSU’s problems are solvable but they do have one concern that we don't see an immediate solution to, and that’s point guard.

Forrest wasn’t a great point guard but he was certainly competent. It’ll probably be Gray at least to start.

And that leads us to our main criticisms of Hamilton’s program, which we say respectfully.

Clearly he has made this a tremendous program which, when he arrived, seemed unlikely. It’s in the top tier of ACC powers now, able to play with (and recruit with) Duke, UNC and Virginia.

But he has never been a particularly good offensive coach (everyone has their strengths and weaknesses) and for whatever reason hasn’t had great point guards.

His teams have also, generally speaking, been turnover prone, which is probably related to not having really good point guards.

Clearly it’s not his priority. He prefers long, versatile players to smaller guys who play point.

But ask yourself this.

How good would FSU have been last year if Hamilton had had, say, Cassius Winston?

The Michigan State point guard, who graduated last spring, is not a massive talent. He’s not 6-6 and can’t be used as the tip of the Seminole spear in the way Hamilton likes to attack.

However, his basketball IQ is off the charts and when he is on the court, he absolutely controls his team. The old cliche is “coach on the floor”, but Winston was more than that. He was a profound leader who could, by force of his intellect and competitiveness, make a group of guys do things a certain way.

Hamilton has never really had a point guard like that. Think about Ty Jerome and how he affected Virginia. Think about the brilliant freshman year Tyler Ennis had for Syracuse. Consider how Jason Williams broke Maryland in 2001 with five points in a matter of seconds and eight in just a few more.

Hamilton has built a program with immense appeal and he gets his players to buy in. None of them are selfish. We can’t even really think of one that’s been a major jerk.

Yet for all the talent, which keeps improving, Hamilton hasn’t yet had a Winston or Ennis who he knows will control the game. There’s been no Williams (although Michael Snaer was pretty damn clutch).

This may be part of why he memorably gave up against Michigan in the NCAA tournament in 2018 despite being close, something he acknowledged in an interview afterwards, comments for which he later apologized.

Great point guards don't grow on trees, but when you’re in the tournament, and you need steady leadership, well, they’re handy.

Hamilton’s system of frequent substitutions for maximum pressure works well. It hasn’t really been proven in the NCAA though. Hamilton made it to the Elite Eight once - against Michigan.

Last year, we thought he had a chance for a breakthrough but Covid ended that. We’d be surprised if this year’s team had a deep run. Too many things to fix, at least as of now.