Replacing a first-round draft pick after falling short of the NCAA Tournament isn’t as big a worry as it may appear.
Leonard Hamilton reloaded again with a recruiting class that ranks among the top 15 nationally for the second straight year. Combine that with rising star Dwayne Bacon’s decision to stay in school for another year, and Florida State actually has better overall talent than it had last year with Malik Beasley — 19th pick in the 2016 NBA Draft — still on the roster.
Ironically, fixing the defense — which had long been the cornerstone of the Hamilton era — is the biggest obstacle for a program looking to end a four-year NCAA Tournament drought. The Seminoles ranked near the bottom of the conference in the major defensive categories last year.
“We can be the surprise of the ACC,” Hamilton says. “We will be a very deep team if we stay healthy. Scoring won’t be a problem. We just need to get back to playing junkyard defense.”
All ACC predictions and a full preview of each team in the conference can be found in the Athlon Sports 2016-17 Preview Magazine, available in our online store and on newsstands everywhere.
At a Glance
HEAD COACH: Leonard Hamilton
2015-16 RECORD (ACC): 20–14 (8–10)
2015-16 POSTSEASON: NIT: Lost to Valparaiso 81–69 in the second round
2016-17 PREDICTION: Sixth in the ACC
G Malik Beasley (15.6 ppg, 5.3 rpg)
C Boris Bojanovsky (6.1 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 1.7 bpg)
G Devon Bookert (9.5 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 2.8 apg)
G Montay Brandon (3.2 ppg, 3.1 rpg)
Much like Bacon last year, prize freshman Jonathan Isaac arrives with enormous hype. A top-10 national recruit, the lanky 6'10" forward possesses a rare blend of quickness and skills. Hamilton will likely play Isaac mostly as a stretch-4, which will instantly create matchup issues for just about every defense the Seminoles face.
Finding someone to bolster their own interior defense is a glaring need after the Noles lost 7-footer Boris Bojanovsky, who didn’t provide much offense but ranked among the ACC’s best shot blockers.
The good news is 7'1" center Michael Ojo and 6'8" forward Phil Cofer are healthy again. Due to injuries, Ojo, a fifth-year senior, missed all of last season, and Cofer played in only 11 games. Hamilton says their toughness is invaluable.
“Michael and Phil are our two most intense players. We missed that intensity last year,” Hamilton says. “That’s going to help us be sharper on the defensive end.”
Jarquez Smith, an athletic 6'9" senior, is the team’s most experienced forward and is capable of playing multiple positions.
Bacon and junior Xavier Rathan-Mayes both flirted with the idea of turning pro (each entered the draft but never hired agents). Instead, they will form one of the best guard tandems in the conference.
Bacon, a slasher with tremendous physical tools, gives the Seminoles a go-to scorer who can create off the dribble. After becoming the first freshman in school history to lead the team in scoring and rebounding last year, he has the potential to be one of the best players in the country.
“I wanted to come back to get better. When I get to the NBA, I want to be able to help a team right away,” Bacon says. “There’s a lot more things for me to do (in college). I want to take this team where it hasn’t been in a while. Our whole mindset is to get to the (NCAA) tourney.”
Rathan-Mayes, who wasn’t asked to score as much last year with Bacon and Beasley on the wings, can provide offensive firepower too — he scored 30 points or more in three games as a freshman. But the veteran’s ability to create shots and limit turnovers will be more important, especially with the graduation of back-up point Devon Bookert, who shared much of the ball-handling duty.
Expect steady improvement and a bigger role for swingman Terance Mann after he earned significant playing time as a freshman. Junior college transfer Braian Angola-Rodas, a lanky shooting guard who can create his own shot, and freshman Trent Forrest, a consensus top-100 recruit, are ready to contribute now. That group will certainly give Hamilton a lot of interchangeable parts and keep Bacon and Rathan-Mayes from having to play heavy minutes.
Jonathan Isaac ranks as one of the top recruits in school history. Braian Angola-Rodas will be expected to contribute after two years at the junior college level. Trent Forrest has a college-ready frame that should help get him on the court early on. C.J. Walker is a true point guard who will compete for back-up duties. Mfiondu Kabengele is a year or two away from contributing.
There’s too much talent for Florida State not to at least be in the mix for an NCAA Tournament bid. Isaac could be a one-and-done player, and Bacon is destined for the NBA, too.
The lack of a quality big man hurts, but the guard play is more than strong enough to compensate. The real issue is whether the defense will improve, especially after losing the team’s best shot blocker (Bojanovsky).
If Hamilton can get the Noles to play the type of stingy defense that they used to, they could win a couple NCAA Tournament games. If not, they’ll be a bubble team at best.