Few teams in the country return more production or experience than Florida State — the Seminoles’ top six scorers are back, and eight returning players have been starters at some point. But it’s what’s being added to the roster that has the Noles poised to end a three-year hiatus from the NCAA Tournament.
A five-man recruiting class that ranks among the top 10 nationally — and arguably is the best of Leonard Hamilton’s 14-year tenure in Tallahassee — will substantially boost the team’s talent level. Perhaps even more important, it will improve the Seminoles’ depth on the perimeter, their biggest weakness last season.
“When you have guys playing 36-37 minutes a game, it’s only natural they will wear down, and we had a lot of our guards doing that last year,” Hamilton says. “Now we can go big. We can go small. We have the interchangeable parts to do things differently. That’s going to help us improve in all areas.”
All ACC predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2015-16 Preview Magazine, available online and on newsstands everywhere.
Podcast: Who should be No. 1 in College Basketball in 2015-16?
Finding a steady presence in the post has been a big issue for the Seminoles the last two years — and it remains a glaring question.
The good news: Four players who received steady minutes last season are back. Senior 7-footers Boris Bojanovsky (7'3") and Michael Ojo (7'1") have always been solid shot blockers but have struggled to score. Hamilton says both have spent more time in the gym this summer than ever before. “There’s a transition from the European style of ball to ours in America,” Hamilton says. “Those guys have grown up and worked hard. I expect them to progress.”
The same goes for versatile forwards Jarquez Smith and Phil Cofer, both of whom can step outside and knock down jumpers. Still, it’s improved rebounding and interior defense that the Noles need most from their big men.
Florida State Facts & Figures
Last season: 17-16, 8-10 ACC
Last NCAA Tournament: 2012
ACC Projection: Sixth
Postseason projection: Second Round
The return of sophomore Xavier Rathan-Mayes gives Hamilton a potential star to build around. The slender 6'4" Canadian is best known for a mind-boggling offensive tear — scoring 30 points (including six straight 3-pointers) in the last 4:38 of a loss to Miami. But he’s capable of being a solid distributor as well.
“I didn’t want to leave on a season like that,” says Rathan-Mayes, who briefly considered entering the NBA Draft. “We definitely feel like we have something to prove. With the guys we have returning, and coming in, we have a chance to do something special.”
If prize recruit Dwayne Bacon lives up to his potential, Rathan-Mayes may be right. An athletic 6'7" wing from the famed Oak Hill (Va.) Academy, Bacon excels at attacking the basket. He has all the physical tools to be one of the nation’s top freshmen.
Montay Brandon and Devon Bookert are proven seniors who will continue to play major roles but will likely benefit from having more rest — both averaged around 35 minutes per game in 2014-15. Bookert, who shot just under 40 percent from 3-point range, will move between the point and the wing. Brandon led the team in rebounding last season with 5.5 per game and also averaged 11.8 points while shooting an impressive 54.1 percent from the floor.
Freshmen Malik Beasley and Terance Mann, both four-star prospects, are expected to earn significant playing time, along with junior college transfer Benji Bell. That trio’s size and athleticism will immediately bolster the defense. “We always take the approach that (newcomers) have to earn their rightful place, but to say that I’m impressed with their athleticism and skills would be an understatement,” Hamilton says. “They should be able to make contributions, and combined with some savvy veterans, we can be more efficient.”
Key Losses: F Kiel Turpin
Top Players: G Xavier Rathan-Mayes, G Devon Bookert, G Brandon Montay, G/F Dwayne Bacon, C Michael Ojo
The roster has a nice blend of youth and experience, reminiscent of the well-rounded FSU teams Hamilton guided to four straight NCAA Tournaments from 2009-12. The Noles still lack an inside scoring threat, but the perimeter will be good enough to make up for it. Look for Hamilton to go with smaller lineups and play four guards at times. With a deeper and more talented rotation, the Noles are a virtual lock to improve. Just how much will hinge on a return to playing great defense — something that has been missing in recent years — and quick development of the freshmen. If that happens, Hamilton’s club won’t have much trouble securing an NCAA Tournament bid.