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ACC Preview #12 - Florida State

Can the ‘Noles get back on track?

Florida State v Duke
DURHAM, NORTH CAROLINA - DECEMBER 31: Duke Blue Devils fans work to distract Caleb Mills #4 of the Florida State Seminoles s he attempts a free throw during the second half of their game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on December 31, 2022 in Durham, North Carolina. Duke won 86-67.
Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

ACC Preview #1 - UNC || ACC Preview #2 - NC State || ACC Preview #3 - Wake Forest ||ACC Preview #4 - Virginia || ACC Preview #5 - Syracuse || ACC Preview #6 - Pitt || ACC Preview #7 - Clemson || ACC Preview #8 - Miami || ACC Preview #9 - Louisville || ACC Preview #10 - Virginia Tech || ACC Preview #11 - Boston College

What to make of Florida State? This program was humming along near the top of the ACC before Covid hit. It has been highly competitive for a while as Leonard Hamilton fine-tuned the machine, plugging in gifted athletes to his high-volume rotation and just kept things rolling.

Between 2016-17 and 2020-21, the Covid season excepted, the Fightin’ Hammies made the NCAA four straight seasons, getting to the round of 32, the Sweet 16 twice and the Elite Eight in 2018. You may remember this game - it was when Hamilton inexplicably declared to reporter Dana Jacobson that “the game was over” when Michigan was up four with :11 seconds to go. Watch it again and imagine Mike Krzyzewski, Dean Smith or Tony Bennett in that situation. Hamilton’s reaction, to be charitable, was bizarre.

Then injuries crippled the team the last two seasons, with the ‘Noles finishing 17-14 and last year’s 9-23 disaster. Last year, transfer Jaylan Gainey missed the entire season with an ACL injury while Cam’Ron Fletcher’s knee limited him to 10 games and De’Ante Green and Baba Miller were both still recovering from their own injuries. Miller was also suspended for much of the season by the NCAA. Those injuries also made Florida State a perimeter oriented team and on top of that, the ‘Noles were fairly young. It was a lot to overcome.

Hamilton is now 75 and that’s a tough age to start over. Well he’s not really starting over. But the foundations have taken a hit and he has to shore things up.

Hamilton loses four players to the portal - redshirt freshman Jeremiah Bembry, who transferred to another disaster site, West Virginia, without ever playing for Florida State and who might not have mattered much. The other three certainly do: 7-3 Naheem McLeod, Caleb Mills and Matthew Cleveland all opted out.

McCleod is not that skilled but he is 7-3. He’s at Syracuse now where he will be a defensive specialist, particularly if new coach Adrian Autry ends up retaining Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone (he says he plans some changes, but habits are habits and 7-3 in the lane is pretty valuable in the 2-3).

Mills is on his third stop now and is a grad student transfer at erratic Memphis, where he’ll play for the erratic Penny Hardaway. And Cleveland left too, which hurts in two ways: he was their best player, and he chose ACC rival Miami for his next stop. And he could emerge as a major star as so many of Jim Larranaga’s guards have done over the years. That won’t feel good in Tallahassee.

Those guys led in scoring and rebounds (Cleveland with 13.8 and 7.4), assists and steals (Mills with 3.4 and 1.3) and blocks (McLeod with 1.2)

On the bright side, Darin Green, De’Ante Green, Cam Corhen, Jalen Warley, Cam’Ron Fletcher, Chandler Jackson, Baba Miller, Tom House and return.

It’s never a surprise to see Hamilton gather up several 7 footers, most of whom are useless except that they can back up the pressure as noted above and make it tougher to score inside.

He doesn’t have any of those this year but he does have six guys who are 6-9 or taller and only one significant player is less than 6-5. So yes, FSU will be big again.

Of the returnees, Cam’Ron Fletcher averaged the most minutes - 29.1 per game - but his season ended on December 3rd and he missed almost all ACC play. He was averaging 10.8 ppg and 7.5 boards. His injury was probably especially dispiriting - FSU was just 1-8 going into the Virginia game where he went down.

Jalen Warley also returns and the 6-6 junior has definitely had his moments. FSU’s injuries and Miller’s suspension made his role more complicated: he’s capable of running the offense well, but he’s not really a scorer and he probably needs good targets to be effective. A high school teammate of former Duke Blue Devil Derrick Lively, he’s also a good defender.

Freshman big man Cam Corhen was probably forced to play more than Hamilton would have liked, but what choice did he have? Corhen did the best he could, but he wasn’t ready.

He was forced into action after Fletcher’s injury with predictable results and other big men around the conference took full advantage. Still, Corhen averaged 8.3 ppg and pulled down 3.5 boards for FSU. He was the best of Hammy’s limited options: McLeod, despite being 7-3 and healthy, was chained to the lane, shot 54.7 percent overall but a dreadful 40 percent from the line. He only played 13 minutes a game on a team desperate for interior help, which tells you what you need to know.

Baba Miller, a 6-11 Spaniard, came in with some expectations, but the NCAA suspended him until February 18th and he only played in fifteen games. He was also recovering from an off-season injury which couldn’t have helped.

Admirably, he chose to return, feeling that he had unfinished business. Miller played with Spain’s U-19 team this summer and helped the team win gold. He’s said to be a versatile, Euro-type big man which is unusual for FSU but intriguing. His positive attitude should endear him to Seminole fans. Heck, it’s endeared him to us and we have no interest in FSU basketball at all. But that guy?

Baba, baby! Miller is pretty cool.

Like Miller, Green was getting over an injury. What can you do? We didn’t really get a good sense of his potential. Hopefully the Asheville native will have a healthy season.

And of course Gainey, a native of Greensboro who transferred from Brown last season, missed the entire year with a knee injury. We don’t really know what to expect there. He was an excellent defender at Brown so if he’s back in full health, he should be useful.

We may or may not see Jackson any time soon: Hamilton suspended him indefinitely in July for unspecified reasons. You’d expect a summer suspension to be cautionary, perhaps for academics or the always popular for “not upholding standards.” We’d be surprised if he’s out for much of the season. If it’s not a legal issue or academic cheating (and we stress that the reason for his suspension hasn’t been released and we have no clue what it’s about), he has plenty of time to get right with Hamilton.

He played more than he might have last season due to injuries and with Cleveland and Mills both bolting for greener pastures, Jackson has a chance to build on that experience and to stake out a bigger role.

House got 7.7 mpg but like others, that was probably distorted due to the injuries. He came to FSU with a reputation as a shooter so he might be able to carve out a role. We’ll see.

Florida State brings in three transfers: Josh Nickelberry, Jamir Watkins and Primo Spears.

Jamir Watkins is a 6-7 native of Trenton, New Jersey, and he comes to Tallahassee from VCU, where he averaged 9.5 ppg. He should fit in well and help restore Hamilton’s attacking waves of defenders. In that way, it doesn’t matter if he starts or not. He’ll still help.

Nickelberry is back in the ACC: he started off at Louisville before departing for LaSalle and comes to FSU as a grad student transfer. The Fayetteville native has been decent but not great at his previous stops. He should be a reasonable rotation player for the ‘Noles, and, critically, he adds experience. At a minimum, he can help less experienced teammates learn the ropes. People undervalue practice but a guy like Nickelberry can really help behind the scenes too.

You have to wonder about Primo Spears a bit. Clearly, Hamilton is a better college coach than Patrick Ewing was at Georgetown, but Spears is going from a team that won seven games to one that won just two more. Is he going from a frustrating pan to an infuriating fire?

That said, he should have a role here. The 6-3 point guard averaged 16 ppg for the miserable Hoyas and is a good defender. He’ll challenge Warley for the starting spot and, again, it doesn’t much matter if he starts or not. As long as FSU’s injury woes recede, Spears will fit right in to Hamilton’s preference for depth and waves of athletic players attacking on defense.

As far as freshmen go, Florida State has three: Taylor Bol Bowen, who is from Vermont via Brewster Academy, Alhagie Waka Mbatch from Gambia and Sola Adebisi, who is from Georgia.

Adebisi is actually a redshirt. He’s 6-6 and his FSU bio calls him athletic and springy. It’s hard to know what to expect here, but again, if he’s athletic and can help on defense, he could find a role.

There is almost nothing to Google about Mbatch. He’s 19 and from Gambia. His bio says he played soccer before shooting up five inches. There’s a long history of guys starting in soccer and becoming great basketball players, including Steve Nash, Jason Kidd, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Luka Doncic, Hakeem Olajuwon, Vlade Divac and Patrick Ewing to name a few. We’re not saying Mbatch will follow suit, but if he does, you heard it here first.

He does look athletic in this clip.

On his official bio, Taylor Bol Bowen is listed as the only scholarship freshman, which is a bit surprising. He’s slender at 6-10 and 195 but he has potential. He also has a 7-2 wingspan, which can’t hurt. He’s also said to have a nice outside game and has earned some premature comparisons to Kevin Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo which, you know, could come in pretty handy.

Given how many big men Hamilton has assembled though, it’s hard to know how much he’ll play this year. And why?

Because aside from injuries, a lack of experience really hurt the ‘Noles last season and Hamilton clearly put an emphasis on gathering experienced, older players this time around.

So what to expect? Well, first of all, at 75, Hamilton is in the sunset of his career. There’s no way around that and one more bad year might do him in with the powers that be in Tallahassee.

So he’s wise to go for experience available in the portal.

As usual, Florida State will be one of the bigger teams in the conference, but it’s not just the generally useless bigs Hamilton tends to gather to gum things up inside. Either Miller or Bowen could turn into legitimately cutting edge big men. If he’s healthy, Gainey could be a big factor. Corhen and Green could be important players up front as well.

FSU also has at least two legitimate point guards in Warley and Spears. That’s pretty interesting, because Hamilton has never been that hung up on point guards because for him, the system is everything. Mike Krzyzewski kept his great point guards in as long as he could. Tony Bennett likes his point guards too as does Larrañaga. New Georgia Tech coach Damon Stoudamire is touting Georgia Tech as Guard U.

Hamilton? He likes to spread the minutes around and often doesn’t have a point guard focus. That could change this year.

And beyond a bevy of big men and a pair of promising points, there are more than enough mid-sized players who can help keep the pressure and speed things up.

It wouldn’t surprise us if FSU had a really nice bounce back season and looked like the Florida State we’d all gotten used to, but it also wouldn’t surprise us if bad luck returned and the ‘Noles struggled again.

Either way, Hamilton has to be entertaining thoughts of retirement. If we’re AD Michael Alford, we’ve put Florida Atlantic coach Dusty May’s phone number on our favorites list. If he continues to excel in Boca Raton, FSU should move heaven and earth to hire that guy when Hamilton finally calls it quits - assuming no one has beaten them to it.