Leonard Hamilton is the winningest coach in Florida State history, yet he enters his 15th season facing newfound pressure that it might be now or never for his Seminoles. Florida State has reached the NCAA Tournament just four times under Hamilton, most recently in 2012, but the coach has spent the last few years putting in major work on the recruiting trail. The result is a 2016-17 team that might be the program’s most talented in over two decades.
Hamilton had Florida State close last year, before a five-game losing streak at the end of conference season relegated a 20-win team to the NIT. Blue-chip freshman Malik Beasley is gone after becoming a first-round NBA draft pick, as are four-year contributors Devon Bookert and Montay Brandon, who graduated. There’s new blood in Tallahassee and that’s exciting. Now it’s time to turn wins on the recruiting trail into wins on the court.
It starts with super sophomore Dwayne Bacon, a 6’7 wing with elite athleticism and a tireless desire to get buckets. Bacon became the highest-scoring freshman in Florida State history last year by averaging 15.8 points per game. He used an astronomical 27.4 percent of the team’s possessions to do it, but his ability to get to the foul line and score at the rim was sorely needed. He could be an All-American if he improves his defense and outside shooting. He already has the best cheering section in the country:
Bacon’s reign as the highest-rated recruit in Florida State history lasted only one season. That honor now belongs to Jonathan Isaac, a 6’10 combo forward rated as the No. 12 prospect in his class by ESPN (Bacon was 14th). DraftExpress said Isaac displayed "about as high of an upside" as any player at the 2016 Nike Hoops Summit. He’s a good athlete with a fluid shooting stroke and impressive ball handling ability for a player with his size at his age.
It was only two years ago that Xavier Rathan-Mayes was the FSU recruit everyone was talking about. Now a junior, Rathan-Mayes is a microwave scorer who turned into one of the ACC’s best playmakers last year, where his 22.5 assist rate ranked No. 11 in the conference. Remember: this is a player who scored 30 points in 4:38 as a freshman (you read that right). The ’Noles are hoping for a more balanced player as a junior, one who can cut down a sky-high 20.5 turnover rate while staying aggressive on offense.
There are real concerns about how this roster will fit together, but it’s hard to deny the talent level. Isaac could be a one-and-done lottery pick, Bacon could be a first rounder and Rathan-Mayes is one of the conference’s most talented guards. If Hamilton is ever going to make a deep tournament run at Florida State, this is the year.
Hamilton has options. Florida State can play big with traditional options at power forward and center. They can play huge with two players 7’1 or taller. They can also play small and fast with a three-wing look capable of running opponents off the floor.
This should be one of the deepest teams Hamilton has had in years. 7’1 center Michael Ojo returns for a fifth season after missing all of last year with a torn meniscus. Phil Cofer is back after playing only 11 games last year before ankle surgery ended his season. The roster is also augmented by two capable JUCO transfers in wing Braian Angola-Rodas and shooter PJ Savoy. Angola-Rodas is particularly intriguing after averaging 21.4 points per game for a North Idaho College team that went 30-0. He chose FSU over Oregon, Texas A&M and Utah.
From this perspective, small ball is Florida State’s most potent look. The Seminoles posted the fastest tempo of Hamilton’s career last season, when only five power conferences teams played at a quicker pace. This lineup starts with sliding Isaac to the four, where his speed and agility should be a nightmare for opposing power forwards. That allows sophomore Terance Mann, the No. 86 recruit in 2015, to grab minutes at the three where he can get up and down alongside Bacon and Rathan-Mayes. That has all the makings of an intimidating transition attack.
The presence of Cofer and Jarquez Smith shouldn’t be discounted, either. Cofer is the type of active body in the front court FSU desperately missed last season. He should be the team’s best rebounder. Smith grew into a dependable defensive big as a junior and was still able to chip in 8.5 points per game on offense.
There are a lot of players on this roster who deserve minutes, but that’s a good problem for Hamilton to have. He did fine work getting this talent together. Now he needs to figure out how to maximize the lineups and get FSU back to the NCAA Tournament.
The ’Noles are big and athletic, but are they skilled? That will be the question hanging over the season.
Florida State loses its two best shooters from last year in Beasley and Bookert, who each hit 39 percent of their threes. That shooting prowess will be missed. Bacon and Rathan-Mayes were both only 28 percent shooters from three last season. Mann wasn’t much better, finishing his freshman year at 30 percent from behind the arc. Isaac has good potential as a shooter but only hit 29 percent of his threes on the EYBL last year.
Can Bacon take a step forward as a shooter? Can size and speed overcome shaky perimeter shooting? The ’Noles will have very few easy nights in the ACC, which again looks like the best conference in America. If nothing else, it should prepare them for March. After four straight years of missing the tournament, FSU has no excuses this year. It’s too talented for that.