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No. 14 Florida State: Can they repeat last year’s Elite 8 run?

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Beginning in September and running up until November 6th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2018-2019 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

Every day at Noon ET, we will be releasing an in-depth preview of one member of our Preseason Top 25.

Today we dive into No. 14 Florida State.


It wasn’t but six years ago that Florida State had a reputation for playing some of the ugliest basketball imaginable.

Leonard Hamilton’s program had gone through a four-year stretch where they never finished outside the top ten in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric while managing to find a way to finish no better than 89th in any of those four years; three of the four they couldn’t crack the top 115.

While the basketball world at-large was trending smaller and towards more skilled players at every position, it seemed like Hamilton was recruiting bigger and bigger players every season. It was as if more height and more athleticism at every spot on the floor would help them beat smaller, more skilled teams.

It helped them win games even if it was a misery to watch. They reached the NCAA tournament every year from 2009-2012 before diving headfirst into a four-year tournament drought. In the last three years, however, things have started to change. Hamilton has put a priority on recruiting switchable pieces that actually have some semblance of offensive ability, and it’s paid off.

The last three years, the team has finished top 50 nationally in both tempo and adjusted offensive efficiency, according to KenPom. In each of the last two seasons, the Seminoles have reached the NCAA tournament and won a game, which includes last year’s run to the Elite 8.

And this year, Hamilton has a roster at his disposal that brings back the majority of the important pieces from last year’s run, including a pair of sophomores primed for big years.

What that all means is that Florida State has the makings of being a top 15 team with a very real chance of getting back to the Elite 8 once again.

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FLORIDA STATE WILL BE GOOD BECAUSE …

Leonard Hamilton returns essentially everyone of significance from a team that won 23 games and reached the Elite 8, coming within four points of beating Michigan and getting to the Final Four.

The big news was Phil Cofer’s return. A tough, athletic 6-foot-8 forward, Cofer is a fifth-year senior that was given a waiver from the NCAA for this season. He led the Seminoles in scoring last year and is the perfect fit for the positionless, aggressive style of defense that Hamilton has his guys playing. He’s listed at 230 pounds and has been a four for the majority of his career, but not only is he versatile enough to defend perimeter players, he shot 37.5 percent from three last season. The times when he is on the floor with Mfiondu Kabengele — more on him, and M.J. Walker, below — the Seminoles become really, really hard to guard.

Walker himself was a key returnee, as he is the kind of talent that had the potential of being a one-and-done player. He should step into a bigger role this season as he fills the void left by Braian Angola — again, more on that below.

Terance Mann is probably the most well-known name on the Seminoles, as he scored 18 points in the rout of Gonzaga in the Sweet 16 and popped off for 20 points multiple times last season. He’s probably Florida State’s most dynamic scorer and, along with Cofer, the guy that allows them to play the way they do defensively.

The biggest question mark is going to be at the point guard spot, as C.J. Walker, who started 34 games, transferred out of the program. But with Trent Forrest, who was arguably better by the end of the year, back and Albany grad transfer David Nichols joining the fray, it should work out just fine.

The bigger picture here is that this is less about the individual names. Florida State didn’t make their Elite 8 run because they were more talented than the teams they beat, per se. They made that run because they have a bunch of good players on their roster that all fit into — and buy into — the way that Hamilton wants to do things, and when that is the case, teams tend to have success.

And with all of those pieces returning, it’s hard to picture a scenario where it doesn’t pay off.

Terance Mann (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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BUT FLORIDA STATE IS GOING TO STRUGGLE BECAUSE …

Part of me feels like the Seminoles are getting ranked this high because they got hot at the right time in March.

At no point during the 2017-18 season did Florida State seem like a top 25 team. They ended up earning a No. 9 seed in the tournament which, at the time, was somewhat headscratching; they felt closer to the bubble than the committee ended up seeding them after entering the tournament with a 20-11 record. They went 11-11 after a 9-0 start to the season and finished with a losing recorded against ACC foes after flaming out in the first round of the ACC tournament against Louisville.

Put another way, Florida State was fine last season. They were good enough to earn a bid to the Big Dance and then caught fire for a two-week stretch that brought them to within four points of getting to the Final Four. It’s not all that different from the run that Kansas State or Loyola-Chicago made.

Which leads me to this season.

If the Seminoles are losing one of their top three scorers as well as the player that spent essentially the entire season starting at the point from a team that was never that great to start with, is that enough for us to pencil them in for a jump from just outside top 25 to inside the top 15?

Probably.

But it’s not enough to take the possibility of another 9-9 run through the ACC gauntlet out of the picture.

M.J. Walker (Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

THE X-FACTOR

If Florida State is going to make the leap from tournament team to Final Four threat, the change is going to have to come from someone currently on the roster. Hamilton only landed one recruit in the Class of 2018 in Devin Vassell, and neither he nor the two redshirt freshmen on the roster — Anthony Polite and RaiQuan Gray — are expected to be more than bench pieces this season.

There are no reinforcements coming in the way of new additions.

But that doesn’t mean the Seminoles will be without an injection of talent, and that is because a pair of sophomores currently on the roster — M.J. Walker and Mfiondu Kabengele — are in line for breakout seasons.

Walker is the most intriguing name here. A former five-star recruit that was played in the McDonald’s All-American game, Walker is a powerfully athletic, 6-foot-5 wing that had a reputation for being a bucket-getter coming out of high school. A former four-star recruit as a football player, Walker is the perfect fit for the way that Hamilton is going to play this season, and he should be able to make up for what the Seminoles are losing in Braiain Angola.

Once again, there will be two wings on this team capable of going for 25 points on any given night, and that is exactly what Florida State needs with the way that they play.

Kabengele might actually be more interesting here. He’s 6-foot-10 with long arms and a sturdy frame, meaning that he can place the five for Florida State. In limited minutes last season he proved himself a capable shot-blocker, an excellent rebounder and a guy that can make threes; he shot 38.5 percent on limited attempts. A productive scorer despite getting just 14 minutes a night, he should see more time this year with Ikey Obiagu transferring, and this is probably a good thing for the Seminoles. Kabengele has legitimate NBA upside, and it should benefit them to have him on the floor more.

These two are where the difference will be made.

We know what we are going to get out of seniors Mann, Koumadje and Cofer.

What we don’t know yet is what these two sophomores will turn into. Both have all-ACC upside and if they get close to that potential, then this top 15 ranking for Florida State will look savvy.

2018-19 OUTLOOK

Florida State is one of the more difficult teams for me to project this season.

In all honesty I wasn’t that enamored with them last year. They were fine, and winning a couple games over Missouri, Xavier and Gonzaga during the tournament doesn’t drastically change the way that I think about the whole of their 2017-18 season.

The continuity carried over by returning so many key pieces is going to be big, as is any improvement that will be made by Walker and Kabengele. The bare minimum this season should be a trip to the 2019 NCAA Tournament. There’s upside, but I tend to think that ranking them 14th is the high-end of their range of outcomes.

THE REST OF THE TOP 25

No. 15 TCU
No. 16 UCLA
No. 17 West Virginia
No. 18 Oregon
No. 19 Syracuse
No. 20 LSU
No. 21 Mississippi State
No. 22 Clemson
No. 23 Michigan
No. 24 N.C. State
No. 25 Marquette

VIDEO: Memphis had some laughably bad flops against Tennessee

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The highlight of No. 3 Tennessee’s win at Memphis on Saturday wasn’t the win itself or a Memphis fan deciding he needed to find some relief behind a concession stand.

It was the laughably bad flopping efforts by the Memphis guards:

Actually, let me take that back.

What is actually laughably bad here is that two of these flops were actually called as offensive fouls.

Seriously, watch that first clip and explain to me how a referee standing ten feet away can possibly believe that was a real foul.

Player of the Year Power Rankings: Zion Williamson reigns again

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1. ZION WILLIAMSON, Duke

Nothing has changed with Zion since last week as Duke has yet to play since the last time we rolled out these rankings. We will, however, get a better sense of what he is able to do come Thursday, when the Blue Devils take on No. 11 Texas Tech, the only team in college basketball that has yet to allow more than 1.0 points-per-possession to a team this season.

2. ETHAN HAPP, Wisconsin

The only game that the Badgers played last week was against Savannah State, and Happ finished with 18 points, 11 boards and six assists. The only reason this is relevant is because is bumped Happ up to averaging 5.0 assists on the season, so I can now say that he’s averaging 19 points, 10 boards and five assists. Not bad.

3. R.J. BARRETT, Duke

Ditto, Zion Williamson.

4. GRANT WILLIAMS, Tennessee

I asked around about Grant Williams this week, talking to a few coaches that have scouted or game-planned for him, to try and get a sense for what makes this undersized four-man so good this year. Some mentioned the fact that his long arms make him bigger than he is. Others mentioned his sneaky-athleticism, and that he’s able to step out on the perimeter and be a threat more this year than in the pass.

But one thing that I did hear was how good Williams is as a high-low passer and how well Rick Barnes is able to incorporate this into the offense that the Vols run. The advantage here is that Williams is able to pull a bigger player away from the rim, particularly since he is now effective shooting from beyond the arc. It also allows Rick Barnes to attack matchups, particularly when Admiral Schofield is on the floor. Schofield is 6-foot-5 but is built like a wrestler while also being able to elevate over most defenders. The third clip in the video below shows a perfect example of Williams pulling size out of the paint to allow Schofield to post-up a smaller Zach Norvell Jr.:

5. RUI HACHIMURA, Gonzaga

One thing that I have touched on over and over again is that Rui Hachimura is not a great defender on the perimeter. According to Synergy, he’s allowed 25 points in 23 possessions where he was isolated defensively, and the 1.087 points-per-possession that he has allowed is good for the 14th percentile nationally.

It has gotten to the point that opposing offenses target the matchup with Hachimura. Mark Few has been mixing up his defenses this season, but one of the things that he does quite a bit is to switch everything on the perimeter, and when he does, opponents have had a tendency to create those switches until they get the matchup they want: Hachimura guarding a ball-handler on the perimeter. The last three clips in the video below show that happening:

6. DE’ANDRE HUNTER, Virginia

Hunter had one of his worst games of the season the last time we saw the Wahoos play, but that was last Sunday. UVA is at South Carolina this week.

7. JARRETT CULVER, Texas Tech

Texas Tech has looked really good this season. They’ve also played Nebraska, USC and Memphis … and that’s basically it. We’ll be able to better have this conversation on Friday morning, after the Red Raiders get Duke in Madison Square Garden.

8. DEDRIC LAWSON, Kansas

Lawson was awesome again on Saturday, going for 28 points and 12 boards as Kansas knocked off Villanova in Phog Allen Fieldhouse. The only reason that I don’t have Lawson ranked higher than this is that he might not actually be the best player on his own team this season; Lagerald Vick, when he’s not benched or suspended, has been a monster.

9. NICKEIL ALEXANDER-WALKER, Virginia Tech

Alexander-Walker was the best player on the floor for the the Hokies as they smoked Washington in Atlantic City on Saturday. He finished with 24 points and three assists, a return to dominance in the first game Virginia Tech has played against a relevant opponent in nearly three weeks.

10. CHARLES MATTHEWS, Michigan

This is the first appearance for Matthews — for any Michigan player — in the top ten of these rankings. I’m torn on who from that team should be considered their all-american candidate. I’ve discussed this before, but the way that this Michigan team is built does not lend itself to having a player in that mix. Zavier Simpson is their leader, but that doesn’t really show up in the box score. Ignas Brazdeikis is the team’s leading scorer, but this is a team that wins with defense. Jon Teske is the most-improved player on the roster. Jordan Poole is in that conversation as well.

But for my money, Matthews — who is an alpha defensively, plays a leadership role himself and is the team’s second-leading scorer — is the guy that should get the nod.

IN THE MIX: Jordan Caroline (Nevada), Luguentz Dort (Arizona State) Carsen Edwards (Purdue), Ja Morant (Murray State), Shamorie Ponds (St. John’s), Lagerald Vick (Kansas)

Trent Forrest helps No. 11 Florida State beat SE Missouri 85-68

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TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Trent Forrest scored a career high 23 points and freshman Devin Vassell added 16 points as No. 11 Florida State overcame a sluggish first half and beat Southeast Missouri 85-68 on Monday night.

Forrest shot 8 for 12 from the floor, and had a team-high eight rebounds and four assists to help the Seminoles (9-1) win their fourth straight.

Florida State secured its 30th straight non-conference home win. Nebraska is the last non-conference team to defeat the Seminoles, 70-65 on Dec. 1, 2014.

Ledarrius Brewer scored 16 points and Skyler Hogan added 14 points for Southeast Missouri (5-7).

Christ Koumadje added seven rebounds as Florida State outrebounded the undersized Redhawks 46-28.

Southeast Missouri led 47-42 with 14:46 to go but Florida State went on a 12-0 run to take control for good.

The Seminoles shot 50 percent (31 for 62). They were just 1 for 12 on 3-pointers in the first half before finishing 6 for 24.

Florida State senior forward Phil Cofer played for the first time this season after missing nine games due to a preseason foot injury. Cofer didn’t have a point or rebound in five minutes.

BIG PICTURE

Southeast Missouri: The Redhawks had Florida State on the ropes as Brewer scored 10 points in the first half. They ran out of gas in the second half and couldn’t match up with the Seminoles’ height or athleticism.

Florida State: The Seminoles were playing for the first time in eight days and were able to withstand the scrappy Redhawks.

UP NEXT

Southeast Missouri will host Abilene Christian on Friday.

Florida State hosts North Florida on Wednesday.

Sharp-shooting Vanderbilt beats No. 18 Arizona State 81-65

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NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Saben Lee scored 14 points to lead five players in double figures and sharp-shooting Vanderbilt beat No. 18 Arizona State 81-65 on Monday night.

Vanderbilt snapped an eight-game skid against ranked opponents that dated to an overtime win over Florida in the 2017 Southeastern Conference Tournament. The Commodores (7-2) also beat Arizona State for the first time in five tries on the Sun Devils’ first visit to Memorial Gym.

The Commodores had a big night from beyond the arc, hitting 6 of 12 from deep in the first half and 12 of 28 for the game.

Aaron Nesmith added 13 points off the bench for Vanderbilt. Yanni Wetzell had 12, and Matt Ryan and Joe Toye had 11 each.

Arizona State, which moved up two spots in the AP Top 25 earlier Monday, has lost two of three.

Rob Edwards led Arizona State with 14 points. Luguentz Dort came in as the fourth-highest freshman scorer in the nation averaging 20.9 points, but he had just 10 points. Zylan Cheatham had 14 rebounds.

This was the first game after the Commodores’ 12-day break for finals and is the second part of a home-and-home deal with Arizona State. The Sun Devils won 76-64 in Tempe last season.

Arizona State opened by scoring the first nine points as Vanderbilt missed its first six shots. After that, the Commodores finished the first half outscoring the Sun Devils 34-19, including an 18-3 run over the final 6:49.

Vanderbilt pushed that to 37-28 when Ryan hit a 3 to open the second half. Dort scored five straight points to pull Arizona State within 37-34, but that was as close as the Sun Devils got until Edwards and Kimani Lawrence hit back-to-back 3s with 3:53 left to pull within 62-59.

Simisola Shittu answered with a layup, and Toye knocked down a 3 as Vanderbilt pushed the lead back to double digits.

BIG PICTURE

Arizona State: The Sun Devils finish 2-1 in nonconference play against the SEC. They beat Mississippi State in November in Las Vegas and edged Georgia last weekend before coming to Nashville. … The Sun Devils came in ninth nationally with a rebound margin of 11.6, yet they outrebounded Vandy only 42-39.

Vanderbilt: The Commodores are part of a rare trio with UNLV and Princeton as the only programs to make a 3-pointer in every game since the 3-point line debuted for the 1986-87 season. After Vanderbilt missed its first seven shots, Nesmith hit a 3 to make it 1,040 straight games with a 3-pointer.

UP NEXT

Arizona State: Hosts top-ranked Kansas on Saturday.

Vanderbilt: Visits Kansas State on Saturday.

Notre Dame’s Rex Pflueger lost for season with ACL tear

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Notre Dame senior Rex Pflueger is done for the year.

The 6-foot-6 wing suffered a torn ACL on Saturday in the Fighting Irish’s win against Purdue and will miss the rest of the season, he announced Monday.

“I am saddened to find out that I did in fact tear my ACL in our last game against Purdue,” Pflueger wrote on social media. “This is just one of life’s crazy tests that I have prepared myself for with the loving help of my family and friends. I will continue to cheer and push my Notre Dame family to  not only compete but to dominate for the rest of the season.

“We have an incredible group of players who will pick up right where we left off last game.”

Pflueger has started every game for the 7-3 Irish. He was averaging 8.1 points, 4.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.7 steals per game while shooting 39 percent from the field and 38.9 percent from 3-point range.

“I’m extremely disappointed that he won’t be able to continue this season,” Notre Dame coach Mike Brey said in a statement. “He has been an unbelievable winner and leader for us. He has continually helped me endorse our culture he at Notre DAme.

“I look forward to him continuing to lead and giving me great feedback the rest of the season.”

Notre Dame, which previously lost Robby Carmody for the season with a torn labrum, will have some time to acclimate to a post-Pflueger reality as the Irish will face Binghamton, Jacksonville and Coppin State before beginning ACC play Jan. 1 at Virginia Tech.

Given the injury happened in the first half of the season and Pflueger has played in just 10 games, he could potentially be a medical redshirt candidate should he choose to pursue a fifth season of eligibility.