Florida State head coach Leonard Hamilton has called his young basketball team a work in progress and through the early parts of the 2015-16 season, that assertion has been pretty accurate.
With the exception of a season-opening 109-62 thrashing of Nicholls State, the Seminoles had have trouble putting it together. FSU fell behind 19-8 early to lowly Jacksonville and in the U.S. Virgin Islands, fell to Hofstra before being forced to rally in the second half against Ohio.
In recent days however, gradual improvements have been evident. After dropping a heartbreaker to Iowa in overtime last Wednesday, the Seminoles pulled off their most impressive win of the year on Sunday, topping Virginia Commonwealth in Atlanta, 76-71.
It wasn’t all peaches and cream for FSU as what was once a 14-point first half lead became a 1-point second half deficit on a 3-pointer by VCU’s Melvin Johnson with about six minutes to play, but as it was unable to do against Hofstra and Iowa, Florida State found a way to get over the hump.
FSU proceeded to go on an 11-4 run with sophomore guard Xavier Rathan-Mayes putting the Seminoles ahead for good on a triple with about four minutes to play. As they couldn’t do against Iowa in overtime or against Hofstra, the Seminoles also found a way to get a timely stop as Rathan-Mayes came up with a steal in the game’s final seconds as FSU clung to a 72-71 lead.
Rathan-Mayes has been a big reason for the Seminoles’ improvement. As a freshman, Rathan-Mayes led the Seminoles in scoring, but had been more inclined to serve as a facilitator this season with freshmen Malik Beasley and Dwayne Bacon carrying the offensive load for the early parts of the season.
Of late, Rathan-Mayes has become more aggressive and notched a new season scoring high in each of his last two games, including a team-high 23 points on Sunday. Rathan-Mayes has done so while still averaging a team-high 4.5 assists over the two games.
Perhaps the most notable area of improvement for Florida State however, has been on the defensive end. Defense has long been a staple of Hamilton’s FSU teams, but entering last Wednesday’s Big Ten/ACC Challenge contest in Iowa City, the Seminoles had allowed their previous five opponents to shoot 44.6 percent or better.
In Wednesday’s loss to Iowa, FSU held the Hawkeyes to just 42 percent from the field and just 63 points in regulation — the lowest total allowed by Florida State since the season-opener against Nicholls State. Though FSU had no answer for VCU’s Melvin Johnson, who scored a career-high 36 points on Sunday, the Seminoles held the Rams to 43 percent shooting and their second lowest offensive output of the season at 71 points.
Seniors Devon Bookert and Boris Bojanovsky have seen an increase in minutes of late, which has helped the Seminoles defensively. Bookert has a pair of steals in each of his last two games while the 7’3″ Bojanovsky blocked six shots on Sunday after totaling just seven in the first six games this season.
With a mix of youth and experience that includes nine players who average at least 11 minutes per game, finding the right rotation could be a season-long challenge for Hamilton, but the last week has shown that the Seminoles are getting better. FSU suffered what the NCAA Tournament selection committee could view as a bad loss to Hofstra on Nov. 20, but against better competition, the Seminoles have played much better.
Against a veteran-laden Iowa team that reached the NCAA Tournament a season ago, FSU was just one stop away from winning at a very difficult venue for a visitor to play. On Sunday, the Seminoles found a way to win a neutral site game over a Virginia Commonwealth team that held second half leads against both Duke and Wisconsin — the teams that played for last season’s national championship.
Three of FSU’s next four games will come against teams with current losing records with a Dec. 16 home match-up with 4-3 Mississippi State the exception. That should give the Seminoles time to iron out the remaining kinks before closing non-conference play on Dec. 29 at arch-rival Florida. FSU opens what’s sure to be a difficult ACC slate on Jan. 2 at Clemson.