Analysis: FSU basketball at midpoint

Florida State can have all the size, length and athleticism but it means little without experience and continuity.

If we learned anything from the Seminoles’ first 15 games, the midpoint of the regular season, it is just that. Injuries have been a limitation in practices and games. So has cohesiveness, which can only be gained as players are on the court together. 

And if we have learned anything else it is the resolve and the capability to improve when given time. Patience is a challenge, especially after a lopsided 22-point loss at Wake. But then there is how the team has looked in the games since, as continuity is evident and FSU has knocked off two teams that had not lost in ACC play to that point (Louisville and Miami) and then pulled off a win over a struggling team (Syracuse) on the road without its best big man and leader, Malik Osborne.

With game 16 coming up on Tuesday against No. 8 Duke (14-2), let’s take a look at the Seminoles halfway through the season:

Record: 10-5 overall, 4-2 ACC

Good wins: Due in part to road struggles but also a down ACC, FSU doesn’t technically have what can be viewed as a good win even though victories over rivals like Miami and Louisville should always be appreciated. The Seminoles have knocked off three of the top 101 teams in the KenPom.com rankings: No. 82 Syracuse, No. 85 Miami and No. 101 Louisville. The Cardinals and Hurricanes have each slipped of late, although it should be noted that Miami was receiving votes in the AP top 25 after defeating Duke. 

Evaluating losses: No defeats are good but in the view of postseason resumes, losses at No. 7 Purdue and Florida (No. 37 in KenPom’s rankings) aren’t painful. The Seminoles were also without three players in a loss to the Boilermakers. A neutral-site loss, albeit one in Rock Hill, S.C., to the No. 109 Gamecocks definitely stings. 

Key individual stats: Caleb Mills leads FSU in scoring (13 points per game), assists (2.93) and steals (1.86). Malik Osborne leads FSU in rebounding (7.2), is second in scoring (11.1) and his 3-point shooting (41.3 percent) is second among rotational players. Matthew Cleveland has scored in double figures in four of five ACC games since Jan. 1 and averages 9.2 points, 5.6 rebounds and is shooting 51.3 percent from the floor. Anthony Polite is averaging 9.2 points, 5.6 rebounds (second on the team) and has 24 steals (second on the team).

Key team stats: The Seminoles lead the ACC in steals (145). This isn’t the deepest rotation but nine Seminoles are playing 13 or more minutes per game. FSU is one of the ACC’s worst 3-point shooting teams (34.9 percent), but the team has also shown its capabilities in this area and is now among the top 100 in Division I. The Seminoles aren’t rebounding as well as past teams, in part due to playing a true center so few minutes (they have the edge in just seven of 15 games, including one in which FSU tied an opponent). FSU’s free-throw shooting (69.8 percent) is 213th in Division I.

Strengths: FSU appears to be driven on the offensive end by Mills and Cleveland. Mills can create his own shot, while Cleveland looks far more comfortable in January. Steals and, to a lesser extent, blocks have generated fast-break opportunities. The energy on the defensive end has been quite good even when players haven’t been comfortable with the defensive principles. FSU was aggressive in driving to the rim on Miami, a good indicator of improvement compared to players’ confidence to do so in prior months. Polite’s rebounding and defense has been critical and his offense is coming around, too. The Seminoles have come through in some pressure-filled situations, notably Evans knocking down some clutch free throws to help sink Miami and Cleveland’s performance in second half and overtime to hold off Boston University.

Weaknesses: If the foot/ankle injury to Osborne keeps him on the sideline for an extended number of games, the coaches will need to get creative with the roster. The injury to Tanor Ngom has limited him to just four games, forcing Naheem McLeod (3.8 points, 1.5 rebounds) to play more minutes than the coaching staff would like this early in his career. Quincy Ballard has played sparingly, although he saw significant minutes in his hometown, Syracuse, on Saturday. Still, it’s clear Ballard isn’t valuable in the half-court offense and walk-on forward Harrison Prieto was a better option. It’s easy to see opponents getting FSU’s bigs in foul trouble, leading to more struggles with the interior defense — already one of the biggest concerns for the Seminoles.

Big picture: FSU’s flaws are obvious but you can’t discount the team’s improvement in the last three games, all of them wins. Is FSU better in January than November or December? Yes. That’s a good sign, one of a roster with more newcomers than prior years. FSU’s improvement in 3-point shooting alone from Round 1 vs. Syracuse to round 2 (4 of 30 in December vs. 12 of 20) is an example of the progress, too. Coach Leonard Hamilton thinks this will be a better team in February and the team is trending in the right direction. Tough road games are on the horizon — Duke, North Carolina, Miami and Clemson among them, as well as struggling Virginia. If Osborne returns sooner rather than later, and players like Cam’Ron Fletcher and John Butler continue to take the next step, the view of the Seminoles is positive despite the shortcomings.

Postseason prospects: FSU is 10-5 and is fourth in the ACC standings. The Seminoles could be as good as 12-5 if games against North Florida (No. 302) and at Boston College (No. 132) weren’t postponed and have now been rescheduled. KenPom projects FSU will go 17-12 but hasn’t added in the UNF game to the metrics. One issue for the entire ACC is how the league is viewed — outside of Duke no other team is ranked. North Carolina and Wake Forest are viewed favorably but did not receive top 25 votes, a clear indication that the Blue Devils are in a league of their own with a big gap before discussing the second-tier teams. Will the Seminoles make the NCAA Tournament? FSU will need an upset of Duke and/or a long string of wins to get to 18 or 19 wins by the end of the regular season. A few more wins in the ACC Tournament would likely be needed to overcome the view of the conference and make sure the Seminoles are in the field when the NCAA Selection Committee reveals the field of 68.