Florida State flying under the radar again among ACC’s elite

With a head coach whose side hustle could be anti-aging skin tutorials, Leonard Hamilton and the Florida State Seminoles remain one of the few consistencies in an otherwise unpredictable sport.

While the likes of Duke, Kentucky and Kansas stumble from their throne, FSU continues to hum along. Hamilton’s squad has now won four in a row after a 80-61 thrashing of No. 20 Clemson on Saturday.

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Unranked in the preseason AP poll following a 26-win season, Florida State sits alone in the ACC’s second slot with a 5-1 league record and 9-2 mark overall.

If this story sounds familiar, just ask the preseason ACC poll:

  • 2021 | Preseason ACC No. 8; Currently 2nd
  • 2020 | Preseason ACC No. 5; Finished 1st
  • 2019 | Preseason ACC No. 7; Finished 4th
  • 2018 | Preseason ACC No. 8; Finished 8th
  • 2017 | Preseason ACC No. 8; Finished 2nd

In large part, the program’s formula hasn’t changed: Use imposing length and athleticism to create mismatches, attack the offensive glass, play at tempo, and wear down opponents with a deep bench.

National rankings via KenPom.com. Click to enlarge.

Florida State’s sustainability is largely a byproduct of young talent mixed with multi-year player development. This method lends its way skilled rotations like this year’s where projected lottery pick Scottie Barnes is surrounded by all-league contributors who were former role players.

Senior M.J. Walker leads in scoring and playing time and is the only Top 25 2017 recruit still with his Year 1 team. Walker has dramatically upped his offensive efficiency and distributing abilities since coming off the bench as a freshman.

Fellow senior guard RayQuan Evans is a JUCO product out of Billings, Mont., originally committed to Utah State before flipping to the Seminoles. Evans has nearly doubled his playing time this season while averaging 12.5 points during FSU’s recent winning streak. His most important asset, however, is applying what he learned as Trent Forrest’s backcourt pupil last year to help round out Barnes’ game.

Junior off-ball perimeter threats Anthony Polite and Sardaar Calhoun have been difference-makers as well. Polite has already started more games this year (nine) than in his previous 62 FSU appearances and has been scorching from 3-point range at a 53.3 percent clip. Calhoun, meanwhile, is another JUCO transfer (Missouri State — West Plains) making an early impression. The 6-6 wing had 13 points off 4-of-5 3-point shooting in the Clemson win.

The Seminole frontcourt is beastly as usual. Serbian sophomore Balsa Koprivica is next in the long line of seven-foot, rim-protecting FSU bigs, ranking top 100 nationally in both defensive-rebounding percentage and block percentage. Koprivica pairs nicely with defense-first, 6-8, 260-pound forward RaiQuan Gray, a multi-positional stopper. Gray is improving his scoring skill set as well, attempting 65.6 percent of his shots away from the rim (52 percent last year) while seeing steady upticks in jumper efficiency and free-throw percentage.

Florida State can handle opponents in a variety of ways with its roster makeup. Hamilton’s teams traditionally lean on pesky defense and just enough offense to grind out wins, but this group is actually better on the offensive end. While FSU is still top 30 nationally in block percentage for the 11th time in 13 years, this is Hamilton’s first top 15 offense by adjusted efficiency. The Seminoles are finally a legitimate perimeter threat after years of inconsistent 3-point shooting.

Florida State and Baylor are the only teams in the country that rank top 20 in both 3-point percentage and dunk rate. A formidable in-and-out attack paired with a skyscraper, shot-blocking defense is a nightmare matchup for most teams.

Of course, there are things that still need to be tidied up. Any team with shot-blocking bigs will frequently send opponents to the free-throw line and FSU still needs to rebound better defensively, allowing 19 offensive boards in the Clemson loss. And while Barnes is a frequent highlight-maker, defenses can sag and pay closer attention to Walker and Polite until his jumper improves.

Overall, Florida State is as dangerous as ever under Hamilton. The Seminoles can bully their way through the NCAA Tournament first weekend on size and athleticism alone and now have enough scoring pop to threaten championship-caliber squads. Hamilton is the most accomplished high-major head coach without a Final Four appearance. This group is quietly entering the same conversation once again.

Eli Boettger
Eli Boettger

Heat Check CBB founder, editor