FSU Basketball Season Preview: Strengths, Weaknesses, and Question Marks

Welcome to week 3 of the Florida State Basketball season preview. If you have missed any of the previous articles, feel free to catch up by clicking the links below.

Week 1: The Returning Players
Week 2: The Newcomers

This week, we will be going over strengths, question marks, and weaknesses for the 2020-2021 Florida State Seminoles. A team this talented is going to have few weaknesses, but there’s always something to improve upon; no college team is ever perfect. And while this certainly doesn’t cover everything about the team, it does cover the vast majority of what this team will focus on.

Strength 1: Defense

This should come as no surprise to any Leonard Hamilton team, defense is going to have the highest priority on his teams. This team’s ability to switch 1-5 should be more potent depending on how the center position plays out. Scottie Barnes stepping into the starting lineup provides so much versatility on that side of the ball, where the opposing offense won’t be able to get mismatches in the post. The smallest player in the starting lineup is MJ Walker, who at 6’5” and 215-pounds who is both big and strong enough to guard a lot of college basketball’s “bigs,” and Florida State’s bigs in Tanor Ngom and Malik Osborne have more than enough athleticism to switch on the perimeter and not get constantly cooked.

This defensive system is still one that takes a lot of chances in order to force turnovers, and with their length they’ll be able to disrupt passing lanes, come from the weakside to block shots, and contest every ball movement. There are some bench pieces that aren’t superb defenders, but when 7 main rotation guys are dominant on-ball and off-ball defenders, teams are going to have a really tough time scoring the ball against the Seminoles. I firmly expect the no easy layups trend we’ve seen recently to continue.

Question 1: Just How Deep is Florida State?

Coach Hamilton is known for giving 9-11 guys consistent minutes, which keeps guys fresh on both sides of the ball and they can give 100% while they’re out there. To me, there’s 8 for sure guys in this rotation: Scottie Barnes, MJ Walker, Anthony Polite, RaiQuan Gray, Malik Osborne, Tanor Ngom, RayQuan Evans, and Sardaar Calhoun. Florida State would love for one of Balsa Koprivica or Quincy Ballard to step up and give them a second true big man that can play steady minutes, and same goes for Wyatt Wilkes and Nate Jack, which would give them scoring punch and deadly shooting on the outside.

Wilkes has great knowledge of the offense, but sometimes reacts slow on defense, Jack didn’t show much of anything last season, Koprivica has one of the highest offensive ceilings we’ve seen from a Hamilton big man, but he just has to be more physical, and Ballard would be a likely redshirt candidate had this season not been a wash in terms of eligibility. If FSU can get two of these guys to be steady rotational guys, it’ll go a long way towards giving Hamilton the lineup he needs.

Weakness 1: Shot Creation

Losing Trent Forrest from last season’s team is a big loss, as is both Devin Vassell and Patrick Williams. Those were all guys that, if needed, could get you a bucket as the shot clock waned. Bringing in Barnes will help with some of that, and MJ Walker has progressed to the point where he can create a shot as well. Outside of that, there are not many options. Evans is a good point guard, but he’s more of a distributor than a creator, Polite still has a somewhat limited dribble, Gray lost confidence in his drive last season, Calhoun is more of a shooter…

This offense is a heavy motion-based offense. Shots are created by reading and reacting to what the defense does to all of these movements. Florida State is likely going to have to play even more pick-and-roll in order to get some of these guys more open looks.

Strength 2: Experience

In a season where teams aren’t getting as much practice and chemistry as they normally would due to COVID-19, having experience matters. Especially in college basketball, (good) experienced guard play usually will prolong the life of a team. Having two senior guards in MJ Walker and RayQuan Evans, as well as a redshirt junior in Anthony Polite, to help Scottie Barnes along in his development as a playmaker will help this team tremendously. Other teams in the ACC don’t have this kind of experience, especially in the backcourt. Duke is once again inexperienced, as is UNC, and most other ACC teams just don’t have the talent.

Then you look to the frontcourt, where you have redshirt seniors in Malik Osborne and RaiQuan Gray to go with a graduate student in Tanor Ngom. There is a perfect balance of experience, youth, and talent on the roster. As long as they can build up the rest of their chemistry, there’s a strong chance Florida State will be able to have another successful season.

Question 2: Who Becomes the Late Game Shot Taker?

This goes back to the shot creation weakness, but Trent Forrest became the go-to guy in the clutch when we needed a bucket. His size and strength to just overpower guards worked in our favor more times than not. And if someone double-teamed him, he had the IQ to find the open man for the shot. Who becomes that guy this year? Barnes makes a lot of sense given his size and strength, but he’s also a freshman. Walker has the experience, and has made some really tough shots late in games in the past, but is there enough trust there for him to consistently make the best decision late in games? This will be something that I’m sure the coaching staff is tinkering with in practice, finding sets that fit the players they have. With Forrest, they could run one of two or three plays and knew he would make the right decision 8 times out of 10.

Weakness 2: Wing Depth

While FSU is deep in the backcourt and at the center position, it’s the small forward/power forward combo that there isn’t a ton of depth. Polite is more of a 2-guard that will be asked to play a lot of 3, same goes for Calhoun. Gray and Osborne will both play a lot of 4, and can both slide down to the 5 if need be. There isn’t that combination of Williams and Vassell like last year that they could throw out in any defensive situation. Wilkes is going to be a backup in both of those positions, but is he going to be someone that can be relied upon? Of all the guys I mentioned earlier, Wilkes would be the one the coaching staff would love to see make that next step.

Strength 3: Leonard Hamilton and the Rest of the Coaching Staff

Hamilton is long one of the most underrated head coaches in college basketball, as is the staff he has built around him. Having leadership like Hamilton, like Stan Jones, like Charlton Young, and like Steve Smith is going to be vital for a team that has as many questions about how the season will play out as fans do. Hamilton is always looking for ways to improve player life, and in the state of a pandemic, I have no doubt he’ll do whatever he can to keep these guys safe and healthy. Jones, Young, and Smith, are all excellent game planners, as evidenced by last season. They’re going to be able to put this team in the best position possible to win, there’s little doubt about that.

Giving this staff extra time this offseason to watch some more film, integrate more offensive sets and more defensive looks is going to create nightmares, and as meticulous as they are, they’ve probably already got rough drafts of gameplans ready to go for when the schedule is announced in the next week or so. Nothing is going to catch them off guard at this stage.

Question 3: How Does Florida State Respond to COVID-19?

We saw FSU’s best season get shut down early due to the pandemic, and now they’re coming into a new season with the pandemic still playing a massive role in day-to-day life. How do they respond to how things ended last season? Hopefully, they’ll come out with something to prove and continue to dominate as they did for most of last season. They’ll have a chance to get revenge against Indiana and some other opponents, but they’re going to have to prove they belong in the upper echelon of college basketball. #NewBlood is all fine and dandy until UCF comes into town and gives the ‘Noles a fight. If there’s one thing FSU showed last season, it’s that they have serious determination, and the hope is that it hasn’t faded after a little bit of success.

Weakness 3: Off-Ball Shooting

At this point, weaknesses are serious nit-picks, but this one is a slight concern. MJ Walker, Anthony Polite, and Sardaar Calhoun are all going to be elite shooters, I have very little doubt about that. The question is whether Scottie Barnes, RaiQuan Gray, and RayQuan Evans can step their shooting up. All reports from practice are that Barnes’ jumpshot looks to be improving, and Evans showed capable of hitting 3s last season, but they were mainly on wide-open looks. Gray shot 22% from 3 last season. All three of these guys need to show they’re (1) not afraid to shoot and (2) going to hit the open look somewhat consistently. Having an entire lineup on the floor that can space the floor and hit open shots creates a lot of hesitation in defenses. If Gray can bump his percentage to 30% from 3, while Barnes and Evans both show they’re willing to take the shot, this offense goes from good to scary.

Next week, we will cover the ACC in depth, and figure out where FSU fits into one of the toughest conferences in the country.

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