After Wednesday’s 54-50 win over Virginia, Florida State is now 15-2 on the season overall and 5-1 in the ACC. The ninth-ranked Seminoles are one of the biggest surprises of the season in college basketball.
FSU had to replace six of its top eight scorers off last year’s Sweet 16 team that accounted for 51 points per game. Yet here they are, tied for first in the best basketball conference in America in the middle of January.
It still feels unexpected, but perhaps it shouldn’t. I think it might be time to stop being surprised by what Leonard Hamilton and his staff has built in Tallahassee — an elite basketball program.
Wednesday’s win improved FSU to 58-3 in its last 61 home games. Three years ago FSU ended a four-year NCAA Tournament drought, then it followed up with a run to Elite Eight falling just four points shy of a Final Four appearance.
Last year was perhaps the Seminoles best chance at a title during Hamilton’s tenure. They won a school-record 29 games during the regular season, were the last team to beat the eventual national champions Virginia in the ACC Tournament and were awarded a No. 4 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
But the ’Noles didn’t get the breaks they needed as David Nichols was injured, Phil Cofer’s father passed away and Trent Forrest’s nagging injuries slowed him just enough.
Considering that run, FSU’s current status shouldn’t seem all that surprising. But what makes it unexpected is just how low things had gotten for FSU during the tournament drought.
The Seminoles had achieved prior success under Hamilton, including an ACC Tournament Championship in 2012. Yet some recruiting misses had led to what looked like the end of the road for Hamilton in Tallahassee.
FSU was rewarded for its patience though. Hamilton and his staff changed their offensive approach, which began to attract a higher-caliber player. NBA players Jonathan Isaac, Dwayne Bacon, Malik Beasley and Terrance Mann signed and helped put the program back into the top tier of the ACC.
My buddy Ira Schoffel detailed that turnaround with FSU assistant Charlton Young over the weekend. Bacon, Beasley and Mann were part of the same recruiting class that offered a glimmer of a hope, then came Isaac’s commitment. He went on to be the No. 6 overall pick by the Orlando Magic after just one year at FSU.
The momentum kept rolling with Mfiondu Kabengele being selected 26th overall in last year’s draft despite not starting during his FSU career. Hamilton and the staff have found a way to get NBA scorers to buy into an unselfish culture that begins on the defensive end of the floor.
“I always thought that J. Leonard Hamilton had the blueprint for elite-level basketball,” Young told Warchant.com. “Defend, rebound, run the ball down people’s throats, and depth — wear people down with depth. I just believed so much in our defensive principles.”
This season FSU has replaced the six scorers with depth — and more depth. Ten players entered Wednesday’s game playing an average of at least 10 minutes per game.
Only three are averaging double-digit scoring. Sophomore Devin Vassell is averaging a team-high 12.5 points per game after scoring 18 on Wednesday. Forrest is putting up 11.7 and junior M.J. Walker averages just over 11 points per game as well.
No matter how the season ends for FSU, things don’t look to be slowing down anytime soon. Freshman Patrick Williams has been a force on the defensive end. The 6-foot-8 forward from Charlotte, N.C. was a consensus five-star.
During the early signing period FSU signed another five-star, 6-foot-8 Scottie Barnes from Montverde Academy. Rivals.com ranks him the ninth-best player in the nation.
Highly regarded junior college transfer Sardaar Calhoun, a 6-foot-6 forward, also signed. Last season he shot 43 percent from three-point range for Missouri State University West-Plains.
Yes, FSU will have to replace Forrest and likely Vassell as well. Perhaps even more. But will you be surprised if they keep it rolling?
I know I won’t. I just hope they have a few more surprises in store this season, like perhaps a trip to Atlanta?
(Photo: Mark Wallheiser/Associated Press)