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Noles seek to make up for lost time, regain shooting rhythm vs. Louisville

In what has been an up-and-down season, Florida State has also been a maddeningly inconsistent shooting team.

FSU shot 50.9 percent at NC State and won by two. A few days later, FSU shot 24.2 percent at Wake Forest and lost by 22. The pendulum has swung but when the Seminoles shoot below 40 percent they have typically lost games, which was the case in four of five defeats: at Florida, against Syracuse, vs. South Carolina and at Wake. FSU shot 41.3 percent in a shorthanded loss at No. 3 Purdue.

“It’s interesting that we shoot 50-something percent against North Carolina State on Saturday and we can’t seem to find the basketball a few days later,” FSU coach Leonard Hamilton said. “During the course of the game, obviously, when you go on droughts like that you wonder, as a coach, ‘What can you do? Can you do a little different system that can get the ball in certain spots a little easier?’ Then we went back and watched the film, I was really surprised how many open, uncontested looks that we got.

“And when you go through those periods we probably could have been a little more patient. We probably could have this and that. But at the end of the day, we had shots that we’ve been accustomed to making. As this team moves forward, I think we got to find ways to mentally become a little more relaxed, a little more confident.”

The continuity of the season has been a challenge for the Seminoles (7-5, 1-2) as they head into Saturday’s game against Louisville (8 p.m. on ESPNU) at the Donald L. Tucker Center. FSU made the trip to play UCF in Sunrise, Fla, but could not play due to the COVID protocol, which was the case a few days later with North Florida. Boston College later entered the COVID protocol, although FSU was ready to make the trip for a Dec. 29 game. 

FSU was not able to play from Dec. 15 until Jan. 1 with just limited on-court practice time and a closed weight room. The Seminoles are back on the court, and assistant coach Stan Jones said he thinks FSU administrators as well as ACC officials will do everything they can to coordinate with schools to make up postponed league games. It’s also possible the FSU-UNF game will be played, although the FSU-UCF game will not be made up.

“It’s incredibly difficult with the game of basketball because it is such a rhythm, timing, chemistry and conditioning situation because of the constant back and forth,” Jones said. “You’re not stopping and you’re not just being a specialist on one side of the ball as a defensive player. You got to play both. When you can’t practice, you’re going to lose conditioning. When you can’t practice, you’re going to lose technique. When you can’t practice, you’re going to lose your rhythm. People don’t realize, even as hard as you practice, when you lose (postponed) games, there is a game conditioning and the game brings another level of adrenaline.”

Jones said he felt the Seminoles played hard in the win at NC State despite the lack of practice although he cited technique as well as defensive shortcomings. But a few days later, conditioning wasn’t there at Winston-Salem, N.C.

“We hit a wall when we got to Wake Forest, to be on the road for six days after being in isolation for a bunch of days, we didn’t shoot the ball,” Jones said. “Obviously, anybody can see that in the box score. But the bulk of our shots were short and that’s a classic sign of rhythm being off, conditioning being off. Being in game situations consistently being off. And I’m not the one to ever makes excuses, but it’s real.”

One of the other evident issues, besides the shooting woes at Wake, is the lack of rhythm in the halfcourt set. FSU has often found success turning teams over but even generating steals at Wake didn’t produce many points. Jones thinks the Seminoles will get the rhythm back through repetition in practice.

“You find guys and teams that are usually pretty consistently good shooting teams it’s because they’ve developed a really good synergy between themselves with the ball movement and passing the ball on time and on target to people, where shots are expected,” Jones said. “When you don’t have guys in practice, you can’t play a game you can’t go just pound them in practice the two days back and expected them to have any energy at all when you play the game on Saturday.”

Another evident issue is on the defensive end with the lack of a rim protector. FSU lost Balsa Koprivica after two seasons as he went to play basketball in Europe. Not having Koprivica and a bigger forward, like RaiQuan Gray, has impacted FSU’s post defense. So has not having center Tanor Ngom, who is out indefinitely with an injury.

“What we didn’t anticipate, and not as an excuse, we didn’t calculate losing Balsa and Gray,” Hamilton said “That put Tanor in another situation in terms of how we progressed our program. We’ve been pretty consistent with anticipating. Now, Tanor comes in, our most experienced guy, and he gets hurt. … Our system has been challenged a little bit with not having key veterans in certain positions.”

Hamilton mentioned on Friday that he has often had the luxury of redshirting players like Anthony Polite, Wyatt Wilkes, Gray, Christ Koumadje and Mfiondu Kabengele. Because FSU had veteran depth, it allowed younger players to develop at a more relaxed rate. With Ngom injured and Quincy Ballard not yet ready for any major minutes, the Seminoles have not given heavy minutes to Naheem McLeod but have inserted him into the rotation.

“We got a little less experience at the top,” Hamilton said. “We’re calling on them to be a little farther along than what we thought we needed them. That’s the situation we have with Naheem.”

FSU has also used Malik Osborne as a power forward and center to compensate. McLeod had six points (shooting 3 for 3 from the floor) and a rebound in nine minutes at NC State and then had five points (shooting 5 of 6 from the line) with a rebound at Wake Forest. Jones said McLeod hasn’t had as much court time as he redshirted at Chipola College to focus on his academics before hitting the court last season as the team won Florida’s junior-college state title. 

“The Tanor injury has been a big hole because he was really starting to grow into his own, experience was starting to pay off and his understanding of what we do is starting to pay off,” Jones said. “Naheem only really got a half a semester with a junior college team. And they play strictly zone. So his learning curve and understanding of the details at this level has been a process for him. The playing time is going to escalate as his understanding in practice and his continued consistency of showing productivity exhibits itself.”

While FSU’s lopsided loss at Wake is its most recent time on the court, there is excitement to get back to the Tucker Center in front of the home crowd against Louisville, a team it has defeated four straight times, and Miami on Tuesday. And it’s never lost on Hamilton that ACC games typically are close, with fans able to provide a spark.

“Seventy percent of all games in the ACC are decided by four points or less,” Hamilton said. “And that hasn’t changed over the years. And so you’d like to hope that playing at home gives you a little bit of an edge. But you still got to go out and really do the job.”