Blogger Spotlight: Inside FSU’s nasty D with Tomahawk Nation

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Florida State isn’t a basketball school. Probably never will be. But Leonard Hamilton’s doing his best to ensure the Seminoles are a respectable hoops program (thanks to defense!).

And luckily for college hoops fans, the blogging at Tomahawk Nation is even better than Hamilton’s program.

That’s a credit to Michael Rogner, it’s basketball writer and analyst. (Hey, not everyone can do both.) He’s had a busy week, too. Rogner watched the ‘Noles smoke North Carolina last weekend – perhaps the season’s most impressive team performance – follow it up with a solid win against Maryland and is now doing previews for yet another big game when FSU travels to Duke.

But lucky for me, he was kind enough to take some time to be the focus on our latest Blogger Spotlight.

Click here for more Blogger Spotlight

Q: Big win probably doesn’t do Saturday’s 33-point victory over North Carolina justice. Beating the Heels isn’t exactly new, but that margin must’ve been remarkable to see. Beating Auburn by 30, sure. UNC? How?

A: The defense makes these games possible, but the margin here was extreme. Carolina hasn’t been held to 0.75 points per possession in two years. And you have to go back to Al Thornton’s senior year to find an FSU team that’s scored 1.18 per trip against an ACC team. The stars aligned and the shots fell at an unreal rate, they made their FTs, and when UNC gave up in the 2nd half FSUs team responded by playing even harder.

It was a whole lot of fun to watch.

Q: Does this mean Deividas Dulkys is the ‘Noles go-to player? Or just the most likely to get hot?

A: I’m not sure about him becoming the go-to player, but a couple of recent changes work in his favor. First, coach Hamilton switched to a 3-guard lineup against Princeton to try and cure some of the offensive woes. Second, with that lineup they’ve been cutting back attacking the post via pass, and instead have been spreading teams to create pockets in which to drive. This creates a lot of opportunities for jump shooters on kick-outs.

Either way, Dulkys brings it every night. He plays because of defense and intangibles. Vitale kept commenting during Dulkys’ 32-point outburst every time he blocked a shot or made some hustle play that it “must be his night.” But he does that every night. He gives maximum effort regardless of what’s happening with his shot.

Q: Aside from the Princeton loss, this hadn’t been a horrible season when you look at that schedule. UConn, Michigan State, Florida and even Harvard are good teams. But did it feel that way, or was there a sense of FSU lacking a certain something (until Saturday, of course).

A: In recapping the 3rd game of the season (a low interest affair against Stetson) I questioned the coaching staff’s ability to motivate this team. They went through stretches where they just didn’t seem to care. And Hamilton’s teams might not always be the most skilled teams, but they always play hard.

Fast forward a month and Hamilton began publicly calling out his senior class, questioning their focus. He didn’t name names, but at that point FSU went to a 3-guard lineup and tweaked their rotation. This experiment began with an abysmal start in their 10-point 1st half against Princeton. But the offense began attacking differently after the break, and since then they’ve played 4 1/2 games of their best basketball. Of course they also played Clemson, where they laid an egg. So the jury is still out on whether or not Hamilton has found that spark.

Q: Compare the defense to previous seasons. How’s it rate?

A: John Henson may have been the media’s pick for ACC Defensive Player of the Year last season, but the coaches unanimously picked Chris Singleton. The fact that they lost him (and Derwin Kitchen) and haven’t missed a beat is a testament to the system.

With a veteran team Hamilton has been mixing defenses more than I ever recall. It starts with Michael Snaer on whoever he wants shut down (typically the opposing point guard) and FSU in a man-to-man. In that man-to-man, FSU has been switching screens as much as they’ve been hedging them. They’ve gone to 2-3 and 3-2 zones, sometimes in the middle of a possession that began man to man. They’ve pressed. In other words, they’re really mixing it up.

The end result is that it is once again an elite defense. After leading the nation for two years in defensive efficiency, the Noles are fifth this season. They’re not a fun team to play against.

Q: I’ve always considered teams who thrive on defense simply have coaches who know how to properly motivate players, but Hamilton’s style is even beyond that. They don’t just use man-to-man, but as you say, switch to various zones and presses. How much time is spent on defense compared to offense during practice? And has Hamilton recruited a specific type of player to make that work?

A: I don’t know if the offense/defense imbalance has anything to do with practice time – by all accounts their practices are in line with other college practices. It’s more the players. Hamilton recruits smart kids with next level athleticism in order to be able to run his defense. But those kinds of athletes who ALSO have polished offensive skills go to Duke, Kansas, Florida, Syracuse, etc…. Though after ressurecting the program that’s beginning to change. Ian Miller, Terry Whisnant and Aaron Thomas come to mind as kids who are breaking that mold.

Q: Both Bernard James and Snaer should receive more acclaim for their defensive abilities nationally. But is one more crucial to FSU’s success than the other?

source: APA: I’ve tracked every possession with James on the floor versus possessions with him on the bench. Unfortunately I haven’t finished that analysis with Snaer. So I’m strictly going on the eye test when I say James is more important. The reason is that the dropoff from Snaer to Dulkys isn’t that far. Sure, Snaer should be a lock for the ACC All-Defensive Team, but Dulkys is really, really solid.

The dropoff from James to everyone else is huge. His combination of strength, agility and understanding of the principles is remarkable. It really gives the staff a ton of flexibility in their game plans.

Q: Do the fans ever want a little less defense and more offense? (I’m sure winning makes it all easier to take.)

A: Definitely. Right now FSU has the 113th ranked offense (efficiency ratings) and the 5th ranked defense. If those numbers were reversed and FSU had the exact same record I think the support would be a lot higher. This is a football school. Most fans view the basketball team as entertainment which happens to be sandwiched between the bowl game, National Signing Day, and the start of baseball season.

Q: Duke’s up next. Is a win against the Devils more gratifying than beating the Tar Heels?

A: Considering the financial and talent advantages those teams have, beating either is always a kick in the pants. And I’m sure more FSU fans would answer this question with Duke. I mean, who doesn’t enjoy listening to Duke fans after they lose? But this season it’s definitely UNC.

The Tar Heels have 8 consensus top-25 recruits on their roster, which is as many as the rest of the conference combined. The Tar Heels arguably have the deepest assemblage of elite talent in the nation. But that’s the beauty of basketball. On any given night teams who are much better on paper go out on the court and get smoked. The most gratifying thing for me will be if the program reaches a level where fans don’t rush the court after beating a top-5 UNC or Duke team.

Q: Last year’s team reached the Sweet 16. That doable again this season?

A: First they have to make the Dance. But if that happens, sure. They’ve already proven they can hang with or beat very good teams. It will help if they luck into a favorable bracket like last year. The nicest thing I can say about the committee is that I’m not a big fan, but I won’t complain when they pair my team (a 10 seed) with a 7-seed, and it’s the 7-seed who is the underdog in Vegas.

Of course this crap handiwork went against FSU in 2009 when they were the underdog as a 5-seed in the 5/12 game. So I’m assuming an out of whack bracket, and just hope it falls in the Noles favor.

Michael Rogner is the basketball writer for Tomahawk Nation, the managing editor of Run the Floor, and can be followed on twitter at @RunTheFloor.

You also can follow me on Twitter @MikeMillerNBC.

Tennessee center Tamari Key out for season with blood clots

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tennessee senior center Tamari Key will miss the rest of this season because of blood clots in her lungs, coach Kellie Harper said.

Doctors found the issue during testing. Key is expected to make a full recovery after treatment from University of Tennessee doctors, Harper said, adding that her sole concern is Key getting the medical care she needs to heal and return to full strength.

Key missed the first game of her career in a win Tuesday night over Chattanooga after playing her first 99.

“This is much bigger than basketball. We are so grateful that this medical condition was caught,” Harper said in a statement. “Our entire program will be right beside Tamari during this process and welcomes prayers and positive thoughts from Lady Vol Nation and beyond.”

The Lady Vols opened the season ranked fifth but currently are 5-5.

The 6-foot-6 Key from Cary, North Carolina, currently is Tennessee’s third-leading scorer averaging 8.4 points a game and averaged 4.2 rebounds per game. She started all 34 games as the Lady Vols reached their first Sweet 16 since 2016 last season and set the school record with 119 blocked shots.

Key had 18 blocks this season and 295 for her career, five away from becoming the eighth woman to reach that mark in Southeastern Conference history.

No. 7 Tennessee beats Eastern Kentucky, win streak hits 7

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. — Tyreke Key scored 10 of the first 12 points of the second half and finished with 17, and No. 7 Tennessee overcame a sluggish first half and beat Eastern Kentucky 84-49 on Wednesday night.

“Tyreke is handling the ball now,” Tennessee coach Rick Barnes said. “That’s all new to him. He keeps getting better.”

The Volunteers (8-1) struggled in the first half but still built an 11-point lead over Eastern Kentucky (4-5) on the way to their seventh straight victory.

Key led Tennessee in scoring before leaving with a cramp in his right leg with 6:15 left in the game. Julian Phillips had 16 points and 10 rebounds, and Zakai Zeigler and Uros Plavsic added 13 points apiece. Olivier Nkamhoua scored 10.

“I’m still settling in,” said Key, a transfer from Indiana State who didn’t play last year while recovering from an injury. “This is a new role. I’m taking steps every day and keep learning.”

Eastern Kentucky, which came into the game averaging 83.5 points, was held well below that total due to 17% (6 for 35) shooting from long range and 22% (15 for 68) overall. Leland Walker led the Colonels with 13 points.

It was the seventh time this season Tennessee has held its opponent to 50 or fewer points.

“(Tennessee) is the best defensive team in the country,” Eastern Kentucky coach A.W. Hamilton said. “I think they’re the best team in the country.”

At one point in the first half, Tennessee was shooting 20% and still leading by 10 points. The teams combined to shoot 4 of 32 from 3-point range in the first 20 minutes. The Vols, who shot 24% (8 of 34), led 32-21 at the break.

“If we can’t make shots, can you find a way to win the game?” Barnes said. “When the shot’s not going in, find a way to play. The first thing we talk about is our defense.”

Tennessee shot 41 free throws. Phillips, a true freshman, was 7 of 10.

“(Phillips) has learned the pace of the game,” Barnes said. “I’m not sure there’s been a more effective freshman in the country (this season).”

POLL IMPLICATIONS

Since its early season slip against Colorado, Tennessee has had a steady ascent in the rankings. The Vols’ next two games – neutral site (Brooklyn) against No, 13 Maryland (Dec. 11) and at No. 10 Arizona (Dec. 17) – will go a long way toward justifying the No. 7 ranking.

BIG PICTURE

Eastern Kentucky: The Colonels’ run-and-gun style of offense had them averaging 83.5 points through their first eight games. They ran into a defensive buzz saw in Tennessee, which was yielding just over 51 points.

Tennessee: Santiago Vescovi sat out his second straight game with a shoulder problem. He is expected to be ready to play Sunday against Maryland. . The Vols have won seven in a row since their loss to Colorado.

UP NEXT

Eastern Kentucky: The Colonels host Boyce College on Saturday.

Tennessee: Take on No. 13 Maryland on Sunday at the Hall of Fame Invitational in New York.

Hoggard scores career-high 23, Michigan State snaps 2-game skid

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Matthew OHaren/USA TODAY Sports
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UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — A.J. Hoggard scored a career-high 23 points, Joey Hauser had 12 points and 15 rebounds and Michigan State beat Penn State 67-58 on Wednesday night to snap a two-game losing streak.

Michigan State (6-4, 1-1 Big Ten) avoided going .500 or worse after 10 games for the first time in 18 seasons.

Hoggard blocked an open layup with less than a minute to play and Hauser grabbed the rebound before being fouled and making two free throws at the other end for a 66-58 lead.

Hoggard, Hauser and Tyson Walker combined for 31 of Michigan State’s 32 second-half points.

The Michigan State defense allowed only one made field goal in the final five minutes. Penn State was just 1 of 9 from 3-point range in the second half after 7 of 18 before halftime.

Walker scored 10 of his 14 points in the second half for Michigan State. Hoggard, who entered third in the conference in assists at 6.3, had six rebounds, two assists and one key block.

Hoggard gave Michigan State 35-33 lead – its first since 4-2 – after back-to-back three-point plays with 59.3 seconds left in the first half. It was tied at 35-all at the break.

Seth Lundy scored 16 points and Jalen Pickett had 13 points, 17 rebounds and eight assists for Penn State (6-3, 0-1)

Michigan State hosts Brown on Saturday. Penn State, which hadn’t played since a double-overtime loss to Clemson on Nov. 29, plays at No. 17 Illinois on Saturday.

No. 7 Virginia Tech posts 9th straight win, beats Boston College 73-58

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BOSTON — Reigning Atlantic Coast Conference player of the year Elizabeth Kitley had 22 points and 12 rebounds, and Cayla King scored 16 on Wednesday night to lead No. 7 Virginia Tech to a 73-58 victory over Boston College, the Hokies’ ninth straight win.

Taylor Soule, one of two BC transfers on the roster for Virginia Tech (9-0, 1-0 ACC), added nine points and five rebounds. Soule scored more than 1,500 points and grabbed almost 700 rebounds in four seasons at BC, earning All-ACC honors three times.

Andrea Daley scored 15 points and Maria Gakdeng scored 14 for BC (7-4, 0-1). They each grabbed six rebounds.

Virginia Tech scored 17 of the game’s first 21 points and led by as many as 19 in the third quarter before BC cut the deficit to 10 in the fourth. Leading 64-54 with under three minutes left and the shot clock expiring, Kayana Traylor hit a 3-pointer for the Hokies.

Gakdeng missed two free throws for BC, and then Kitley scored from inside to make it a 15-point game.

Clara Ford, who also played four years in Chestnut Hill, pitched in 2 points in 2 minutes against her former team.

BIG PICTURE

At No. 7, the Hokies have the highest ranking in the program’s history. With the victory over BC, a 10th straight win against North Carolina-Asheville on Sunday would leave Virginia Tech in position to move up even higher should a top five team falter.

UP NEXT

Virginia Tech: Hosts North Carolina-Asheville on Sunday.

Boston College: Hosts Albany on Saturday.

Michigan’s Jaelin Llewellyn out for season with knee injury

Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports
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ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan point guard Jaelin Llewellyn is out for the rest of the season with an injured left knee and is expected to have surgery next month.

Wolverines coach Juwan Howard made the announcement three days after Llewellyn was hurt in a loss to Kentucky in London.

Llewellyn transferred to Michigan from Princeton last spring and that seemed to lead to Frankie Collins transferring to Arizona State after a solid freshman season for the Wolverines.

Llewellyn averaged seven points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.8 assists in eight games at Michigan. He was an All-Ivy League player last season and averaged nearly 16 points over three seasons at Princeton.