Nov. 20, 2013
By Bob Thomas, Seminoles.com
In a sunny and warm climate, the best instrument to measure the conditions is a barometer, which is exactly what Florida State men's basketball coach Leonard Hamilton will have after the Seminoles' three-game stand at the Puerto Rico Tip-Off.
Off to an impressive 3-0 start, the Seminoles will be tested as they compete in the eight-team field at the Coliseo Roberto Clemente, beginning Thursday night when they face No. 10 Virginia Commonwealth (ESPNU, 7:30, ET).
"They didn't intend us to be a top seed in this deal," Hamilton said. "If you beat one top 25 team, you get a chance to beat another."
Florida State and VCU are paired with No. 14 Michigan and Long Beach State in the lower bracket of the tournament. Georgetown, Kansas State, Charlotte and Northeastern make up the other bracket.
Hamilton, however, isn't about to faint at the thought of facing stiff competition early in the season. Actually, he's more interested in finding out just how much the Seminoles have improved from a year ago.
"In all phases of our system, I think we're getting better," Hamilton said. "The tournament will be a tremendous test for us because there are teams there - veteran teams - that are in the top 25 and appear to be further along that we are at this time. These types of challenges are good for you early in the year and give you a chance to see where you are."
In lopsided wins over Jacksonville, UCF and Tennessee-Martin, the Seminoles have shown dramatic improvement in virtually every statistical category; some more impressive than others. Despite the small sample size, the `Noles are averaging nearly 20 more points, shooting 10 percent better from the field and grabbing eight more rebounds a game, compared to their 2012-13 season averages.
Much of Florida State's early offensive success can be traced to significant improvement on the defensive end of the floor. Under Hamilton the Seminoles have long been considered one of the best nationally when it comes to team defense, which made last season something of an anomaly. The Seminoles surrendered 68.6 points a game and allowed opponents to shoot .437 from the floor (.368 from 3-point range), which were some of the worst standards in Hamilton's 11 seasons at the helm.
"The main thing we're improving is really mastering those defensive principles," said FSU senior guard Ian Miller, who attributes much of the improvement to maturity. "When you sign that letter of intent and are leaving high school, you don't understand how hard it is and what all it takes to dominate people on defense at the ACC level. Until you're in that fire you don't really know what it feels like to get burnt.
"We took a few burns last year and got scarred a little bit. Now we understand how hard it is and what we need to do. You can see it coming together. Now we're keeping percentages down and getting back to how we play."
Through the first three games FSU's opponents are averaging 65.3 points and shooting .385 from the floor (.304 from 3-point range). They are also forcing 21.3 turnovers per game, while averaging 11 steals and 7.3 blocks. Those numbers are greatly improved from a year ago when opponents were only turning the ball over 13.6 times and the Seminoles were averaging 6.2 steals and 5.0 blocks an outing.
"Defensively, I still think we have a ways to go," said Hamilton, who has been pleased with the effort his team is exerting on defense. "What I see is a clearer understanding of what we should be doing. When we do make mistakes, I'm getting the sense that they understand exactly what they need to do to improve."
Florida State's length on the perimeter and the ability to close off passing and driving lanes has not only made it difficult for opponents at the offensive end, it has also created additional scoring opportunities. With Devon Bookert settled into the point guard position and Miller, Aaron Thomas and Montay Brandon all capable of handling the ball in the open court, the `Noles are pushing the ball more in transition - off turnovers and defensive rebounds - and attacking the basket.
There is a direct correlation with that aggressive approach and the improved offensive numbers.
If you're looking for further proof, the Seminoles are getting to the free throw line on average, 32.6 times a game. Last season, they averaged just 20.9 free throw attempts a contest.
"If we get stops we're pushing the ball and trying to get some early offense," Hamilton said. "We've been trying to emphasize that all year. We can be a little more versatile and create more (scoring) opportunities off the bounce."
Driving the ball to the basket has not been a Florida State strength in recent years. It is a strength this season and in addition to creating easy baskets and trips to the free throw line, it has also opened up 3-point shooters, who are connecting at a rate of .372 early on.
Still, Hamilton would like to see his post players - Okaro White, Boris Bojanovsky, Michael Ojo, Robert Gilchrist and Jarquez Smith - get more touches on offense to further burden opposing defenses. He is also concerned about the 19 turnovers a game the `Noles are committing - the lone statistical category where FSU has not improved.
The three-game stand at the Puerto Rico Tip-Off could reveal just how much the `Noles have improved and how much further they have to go before diving into the Atlantic Coast Conference schedule. VCU, and potentially, Michigan, have been two of the better defensive teams in the nation in recent years. The Rams are especially proficient when it comes to forcing turnovers, thanks to their aggressive, trapping style.
The Seminoles are anxious for the test ahead of them.
"We're just playing to each other right now," Miller said. "We all have great confidence in each other. When you've got that it's hard to lose, unless it's just not your night. As long as we're playing like that and have the confidence in each other and our coaching staff ... then the sky is the limit for us."