Notes: FSU’s depth challenged again, Fletcher’s energy a spark

Florida State’s depth has been tested throughout the last month. The Seminoles could be even more shorthanded when playing at a top-10 opponent on Saturday. 

Coach Leonard Hamilton said guards Caleb Mills (foot) and RayQuan Evans (knee) are doubtful for Saturday night’s game at No. 9 Duke. If they are unable to go, that would leave the Seminoles without five starters as Malik Osborne (ankle), Anthony Polite (wrist) and Naheem McLeod (hand) are out for an extended period.

“Caleb has not practiced,” Hamilton said. “He was still limping yesterday. I probably won’t know until game time if he will play at all.”

Evans’ knee hit the floor when he dove for a loose ball near the FSU bench in Tuesday’s 81-80 win over Clemson, which snapped a six-game slide for the Seminoles. Hamilton said it wasn’t a dirty play, but when a Clemson player also went for the loose ball he pushed Evans’ knee into the court. Evans also has not practiced.

“We are having challenges getting the swelling out of his knee,” Hamilton said.

FSU (14-11, 7-8 ACC) used 10 players on Tuesday, with seven going for 20 or more minutes. If Evans can’t go, it further complicates the Seminoles’ rotations, which have already been dramatically altered due to injury and would force freshman Jalen Warley and Justin Lindner into more playing time.

Warley played 20 minutes against Clemson, scoring four points and dishing four assists but also turning it over three times. Lindner came off the bench and hit a critical 3-pointer and had a rebound in two minutes.

The prospect of playing No. 8 Duke on Saturday (6 p.m. on ESPN) while shorthanded puts FSU in another difficult spot as well as one in one of the most difficult road settings in the ACC. FSU could be without a group of five that has a combined 73 starts in the 2021-22 season. 

And it’s possible Hamilton would be forced to start freshmen Matthew Cleveland, John Butler Jr. and Warley — who would be facing the Cameron Crazies for the first time — as well as veterans Tanor Ngom and Wyatt Wilkes. Cam’Ron Fletcher, who is coming off games in which he scored 16 points at UNC and 17 points against Clemson, is a starting option or could come off the bench.

“Every coach at some point in time in his career is going through what we’re doing now,” Hamilton said. “And I’m looking at the positives. I like the spirit of our guys, I like the effort, the focus that they’ve given.”

Hamilton takes pride in discussing a roster that is 18 strong, a reference to the scholarship players as well as walk-ons. And in many ways it’s impressive that FSU has at least been competitive in a number of games during the losing streak considering it was down three starters.

The rest of the league’s coaches likely would not fare well if they were down three, four or five starters. Virginia and Virginia Tech used an eight-man rotation when the teams faced off on Monday. Notre Dame and BC played an overtime game on Wednesday in which the Irish used just seven players and Eagles played eight. Syracuse also used just eight players in a road loss Saturday to the Hokies, which again featured eight players.

Duke isn’t deep either, leaning on essentially a seven-man rotation for the majority of its games. But the Blue Devils also feature two of the best big men in the ACC in Paolo Banchero, a 6-10 forward who is averaging 16.9 points and 8.5 rebounds, and Mark Williams, a 7-foot forward who is averaging 10.6 points and 6.8 rebounds. 

The Blue Devils have won eight of nine games since a loss at FSU on Jan. 18. But that was also when FSU was able to win rebounds consistently, grabbing 19 offensive rebounds and taking the battle on the glass 42-37 as Osborne and McLeod pulled down seven boards apiece.

Fletcher’s energy a spark off bench

Fletcher hasn’t started a game and seems to enjoy his role coming off the bench. He’s enjoyed his two best games against UNC (16 points, 10 rebounds) and Clemson (17 points, eight rebounds). Fletcher is still learning on the fly as a first-year player but his energy is obvious on both ends of the court.

“Cam is extremely competitive,” Hamilton said. “He’s not afraid to fail. I think sometimes you have first-year guys, they want to make sure they get everything right. And when they don’t, when they make mistakes, sometimes they’re not mature enough to handle it. They concern themselves with everything being perfect. Cam is extremely coachable. But he’s fearless. He’s a risk taker. He plays with a tremendous amount of energy and you get basically the same effort with him in practice or in games. And so he seems to be at peace with itself. And he accepts criticism and is extremely competitive, high energy. He will play through his mistakes. I’m very pleased with his focus.”

Cleveland’s development in January, February

Cleveland has taken on more of the scoring responsibilities as the injuries have mounted. He was clearly a focal point of the offense in the first half against Clemson and finished with 13 points on 6 of 13 shooting in 30 minutes.

While his shooting percentage some nights has been quite low — 26.7 against Wake and 30.8 against Pitt — Hamilton praised Cleveland’s defense in particular against Clemson.

“He is a high energy guy,” Hamilton said. “He took great pride in being what we call our bandit, the guy who picks the ball up 94 feet. He’s a well-conditioned athlete, and he was excited with that defensive role that he had in that game. … He seemed to be playing a lot more within himself. He is a slasher, he’s an energy guy. He’s a rebounder. He has a nice pull up jump shot and we know that his 3-point shooting will continue to improve like some of the players we’ve had in the past. But many times he has all those intangible things and sometimes we judge people by how many points they score, how many shots they make from behind the arc, but he has those other intangible things that he’s utilizing to contribute. And I think he feels good about that.”