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Just How Good is Florida State?

Jonathan Isaac
For years, football has overshadowed hoops in Tallahassee. The long-running success of the Bobby Bowden era and another National Title behind Jimbo Fisher and Jameis Winston has asserted Florida State as a powerhouse in the college football world. Yet, FSU basketball is trying to change that history, as they have rolled through the 2016-2017 basketball season on fire. Head coach Leonard Hamilton is building something impressive, and we cannot ignore how dangerous this Seminoles team is as March slowly approaches.

Entering the season, Florida State appeared to be a fringe-Top 25 squad with plenty of upside. They had lofty expectations for last year, but inconsistent play and lack of experience equated to a 20-14 overall record and below-.500 mark inside the brutal ACC. However, with fantastic sophomore Dwayne Bacon returning after flirting with the NBA, and dangerous scorer Xavier Rathan-Mayes also back, this team appeared to be a team that could make plenty of waves even inside such a deep conference. So far, those mild expectations have been even exceeded, as the Seminoles sit at 18-2 overall and 6-1 inside the conference late in January. They are also ranked tenth in the nation, and seem to only be getting better as the weeks go on. While those accomplishments by themselves are extremely impressive, it is Florida State's resume that is even more astounding. In the non-conference, the Seminoles handled in-state rival Florida, Minnesota and Illinois, who could all be NCAA Tournament teams, with their lone loss coming by three in a thriller to Temple. They managed to keep up their impressive play by starting off ACC play in a grand way. After a sixteen point victory over Wake Forest to open up the conference season, FSU stared down the face of a schedule that had six straight ranked opponents, with two of them on the road. They used a strong defensive showing to squeak past Virginia, then switched things up a few days later by dropping 93 in a win over Virginia Tech. They dropped 88 to push past preseason favorite Duke, and bounced back from a tough loss to North Carolina by overcoming their last two ranked teams, Notre Dame and Louisville. When it is all said and done, Florida State is now 5-1 against ranked teams, and have proven they can win comfortably and also close out games with their composure and poise late in games.

The big difference between last year's Florida State and this year's edition is their versatility, depth and leadership, which have all contributed to their meteoric rise. Offensively, FSU features a lot more offensive variation than they did last season and have seen a number of contributors see major improvements. The Seminoles are not a superb three-point shooting team, but they do most of their damage attacking the rim or in transition, where they have a ton of speed and superb finishers. Also helping them out is the fact they have a good amount of size down low, namely big-name freshman Jonathan Isaac and study senior Michael Ojo. Isaac was a prized recruit for Hamilton and staff who is already playing terrific despite his youth. Also playing huge for FSU is Bacon, who has taken leaps and bounds as a sophomore. He is leading FSU in points per game at 17.4, and is a superb playmaker. Xavier Rathan-Mayes has also taken steps after a good, but uneven freshman campaign. He is averaging 10.4 PPG and 4.7 APG while knocking down 46 percent from the field. Rathan-Mayes has always been a dangerous scorer, but has improved his efficiency and plays smarter. Playing a large role in Florida State's improvement has been an added level of experience. While they were immensely talented last season, they lacked much leadership and experience. They aren't exactly a team full of seniors, but a lot of their young guys play more comfortable now that they have more games under their belt, namely Bacon and Rathan-Mayes. It has added a lot more composure to the team as a whole, which has enabled them to perform better late in games, and win some of the close ones they have been involved in.

The big question for the Seminoles, though, is what does this winning mean? They may be 18-2, tenth in the nation, and flaming hot, but are they a legitimate National Title contender? Personally, I think they certainly are. They seem to have all the looks of a serious contender, from depth and experience to offensive and defensive diversity. The ACC has been a very chaotic league so far in 2017, but FSU has looked like the best team in the conference that has a long list of Final Four contenders. The X-Factor for the 'Noles (beyond the continued play of Bacon, Rathan-Mayes and Isaac) is their head coach, Hamilton. Hamilton has established himself as an elite-level recruiter, and has helped bring back the basketball program into the spotlight. However, postseason success has not always been a constant, and this is not the first time Florida State has fans thinking big. In 2012, FSU beat both UNC and Duke on their way to an ACC Tournament crown. Their hot play and wins over two established programs made them a popular dark horse pick as a three seed, and I placed them in my Final Four that season. They managed to hold on to win their opener, 66-63 over St. Bonaventure before losing in the third round to Cincinnati. It was a major letdown, and obviously there is a chance this team could have a similar fate. But, there is something different about this group. Winning five out of six conference games is tough anywhere, let alone having all those games by against ranked teams inside the nation's best conference. It doesn't pay to overreact in college basketball, with all the parity the sport experiences, but people should be excited about what this Seminoles team can accomplish. Right now, a Final Four or even National Championship berth doesn't seem too crazy, and maybe, just maybe, could be on the horizon.

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