- Ky McKeon
Key Returners: Terance Mann, Phil Cofer, Trent Forrest, MJ Walker, Christ Koumadje
Key Losses: Braian Angola, CJ Walker
Key Newcomers: David Nichols (Albany), Devin Vassell
Outlook: Florida State flew under the radar during most of 2017-18. A team that lost Dwayne Bacon, Jonathan Isaac, and Xavier Rathan-Mayes from a year before wasn’t expected to come within a breath of a Final Four, but that’s exactly what Leonard Hamilton’s squad accomplished last season when they crashed the Elite Eight as a 9 seed. With nearly everyone returning from that team, the Noles are now firmly on everyone’s radar coming into 2018-19 and look to challenge for the school’s first ever ACC title.
FSU was able to compete with the likes of Xavier and Gonzaga in last year’s tournament due to its immense size across all five positions on the floor. This size, combined with a high level of athleticism and physicality made the Noles a tough team to score against and wore down opposing defensive units. FSU had (and still has) that unique combination of big guards and a shot eraser inside the height of a small building. Very few squads in the college ranks are going to match a lineup that goes 6’4”, 6’5”, 6’7”, 6’8”, and 7’4”. Hamilton used this size to employ a token full court press and create a wall of limbs from the three-point arc in towards the rim. FSU ranked 8th in the country in FG% defense at the rim in 2017-18.
Offensively, Hamilton’s brand of basketball the past few seasons has been highlighted by a willingness to run. No team in the ACC played at faster tempo last year than Florida State. The Noles want to push off the glass into transition in an effort to attack the rim while opposing defenders struggle to get back in position. When not running, the Noles use their superior backcourt strength to attack the basket in hopes to gain easy layups, put back opportunities, or trips to the foul line.
A third party observer with little FSU viewing experience may look at this roster and worry about the lack of a true point guard. CJ Walker transferred this offseason, but his performance on the floor from an advanced stat perspective indicates that could actually be a blessing in disguise: FSU was +0.13ppp better when Walker sat versus when he was on the floor, per Hoop Lens. On top of that, rising junior Trent Forrest performed brilliantly last season as the squad’s de facto point guard. At 6’4”, Forrest may be more of a natural off-guard, but he proved to have the requisite handle and court vision to run an offense. Forrest’s style of play embodies the Florida State goal on offense: run in transition and attack the basket. Forrest ranked 1st in the ACC in free throw rate last year (9th in the country) and a staggering 71% of his shot attempts came near the rim last season – that’s higher than the 7’4” guy on the team. Take a look at Forrest’s shot chart:
That is a shot chart that screams, “I am 100% drive”. Of course, the downside of this is the fact that defenses can often play off Forrest due to his unwillingness (and inability?) to shoot from the outside.
Outside shooting wasn’t a strong point for FSU last year, but the Noles have a few capable strokers coming back despite the loss Braian Angola, their most prolific three-point shooter from 2017-18. Phil Cofer, MJ Walker, and PJ Savoy all showed competency from outside the arc last season, and leading scorer Terance Mann appears to want to add that facet to his game.
Cofer’s inclusion on this year’s Noles roster comes as a sigh of relief. The senior forward was granted a 5th year of eligibility in late May, and while this was always assumed to happen, the announcement feels no less alleviating for FSU fans. Cofer plays the 4 for Hamilton, but performs more so as a wing that can shoot from deep or beat his man off the bounce. He was one of the better overall finishers in the conference last season. Savoy returns to resume his role as a microwave off the bench. In his two-year Florida State career, Savoy has attempted 235 three-pointers to just 37 two-pointers.
MJ Walker has to be the guy to watch for the Noles this season. Coming out of high school in 2017, Walker was touted as a top-30 5-star recruit with sky-high potential. Despite an up-and-down and overall inefficient freshman season, Walker showed flashes of what made him so highly sought after and still clearly possesses gobs of potential for college stardom. He should get plenty of opportunity stepping into Angola’s starting spot full-time, and, unlike Forrest and Mann, Walker can shoot consistently from beyond the arc in addition to his strong penetrating prowess.
Mann returns to complete what has been a very successful college career. In three seasons, the 6’7” wing is shooting 62.3% from inside the arc, ranking in the top 100 nationally in 2PFG% all three years. Like Forrest, Mann is a hard-nosed driver that gets to the free throw line at will. He’s also invaluable to FSU’s offensive glass crash, ranking 3rd on the squad in offensive rebounding rate. As alluded to earlier, Mann seems to be in the process of adding a three-point wrinkle to his game; he’s attempted 13, 23, and 52 shots from deep the past three seasons but has yet to connect on over 31% of those. If he does become a serviceable outside shooter, a spot on the All-ACC First Team isn’t out of reach.
Once again, as it seems every year, Hamilton will feature a 7-foot + center inside. Last season was the first year since 2009 that the Noles ranked outside of the top ten tallest teams in the country (they ranked 12th), but they still featured 7’4” Christ Koumadje and 7’0” Ike Obiagu. Obiagu is gone, but Koumadje is back as well as 6’10” backup big Mfiondu Kabengele. Koumadje is an expert shot blocker (as his size would suggest), but the big man is foul prone and his thin frame can’t really bully anyone on either side of the floor. Offensively, he’s a threat to score on the offensive glass, but FSU rarely runs consistent offense through post-ups.
Only two key newcomers join the Noles this season (outside redshirt freshman RaiQuan Gray), freshman Devin Vassell and Albany grad transfer David Nichols. Vassell is a high-energy wing with good bounce and a nice shooting form, but is likely a year or two away from contributing consistently. Nichols was one of the most sought after grad transfers on the market this offseason. He had a slightly down year efficiency-wise last season at Albany, shooting sub-40% inside the arc, but he did knock down threes at a 37% clip. Nichols is a quick, capable ball handler that should fit into the FSU transition-focused system perfectly. He’ll fill a backup point guard role behind Forrest and may even earn start or two during the year. As a bonus, Nichols was a good defender at Albany, so he should be at least as productive as the departed CJ Walker.
Florida State has garnered a lot of hype coming into this year off their 2017-18 Elite Eight run, but when looking at the roster makeup that hype feels deserved. Hamilton should have himself a top 30 defensive squad this year that should be able to score as, or more efficiently than, last season.