Cleveland emerging in ACC play, which could help FSU vets, too

The storyline of continuity and comfort as well as finding rhythm after a break due to the COVID protocol have been major storylines for Florida State.

There is also the first steps taken by newcomers, especially freshmen playing their first FSU games. Matthew Cleveland had his moments in the eight non-conference games, especially after halftime against Boston University and helping the Seminoles withstand the upset bid. 

Cleveland averaged 9.6 points per game against non-conference teams, but he has been quite good in FSU’s four ACC games. The freshman is now averaging 14.3 points in FSU’s three ACC games in January, including a double-double (13 points, 10 rebounds) at NC State. He matched his season-high with 17 points with five rebounds and made critical baskets late in FSU’s win over Louisville on Saturday.

“I think he’s understanding how he needs to play in relation to our system so that he can be more effective,” FSU coach Leonard Hamilton said. “I thought his shot selection was good. I thought he rebounded very well. and he got big rebounds. I thought his defense was really, really good. And I thought his energy was contagious in the kind of lifted the spirits on the other guys.

“He’s reacting a little bit more than thinking. And I think that’s the process most freshmen go through at some point where they feel more and more comfortable. And I think that’s the state that he’s in right now.”

FSU (8-5, 2-2 ACC) is finding continuity after not playing for 18 days as three games were rescheduled. Next up for the Seminoles is a home game against Miami, which stunned No. 2 Duke on Saturday. The FSU-Miami game airs at 8 p.m. on the ACC Network.

The Seminoles are in an unusual spot as the ACC schedule heats up: They have veterans and are led by them but the scoring load is often being shouldered by newcomers like Caleb Mills and Cleveland. Malik Osborne is playing through a foot injury, a sign of selflessness and leadership even if points aren’t a part of his contribution. Anthony Polite, RayQuan Evans and Wyatt Wilkes have not produced points, although Polite has impacted the game through defense, rebounding and passing.

On Saturday, Polite had eight rebounds, three assists and two steals. He has 24 steals in 13 games.

“When he becomes the main target of other teams’ preparation, and he’s not getting a lot of the open looks that he had with other guys that the defense had to give those guys attention,” Hamilton said. “He and Wyatt both are victims of being good shooters and people giving them the proper respect, which should open up things for other guys. He played excellent defense … He made good decisions. His defense was unbelievable.”

Hamilton said he can tell teams are guarding Polite differently this season: “They’re saying do not leave him open, be there on the catch.”

“As our team improves, you are going to see he will get better looks and I think you’ll find that he’s he’s going to be more consistent,” Hamilton said. “Right now, they’re keying in on our most experienced players. And our young, inexperienced guys are starting to get into rhythm and becoming more effective in our system.”

Hamilton said he thinks teams with less experience are still figuring things out while teams like Florida State, with three transfers (Mills, Cam’Ron Fletcher and Naheem McLeod) as well as three freshmen (Cleveland, John Butler and Jalen Warley) will have their best basketball ahead of them.

“I think we’re going to be a much better team in February than we are right now,” Hamilton said. “… The younger, most inexperience teams are going to progress as they go along.”