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October 27, 2009

Men's Basketball Season Preview

Spreading the wealth on offense

With guard Toney Douglas now wearing a New York Knicks jersey, it is easy to believe that Florida State's offense will take a hit this season. In fact, in the 35 games played last season, Douglas was the leading scorer in 31 and he ended up leading in the ACC in scoring at 21.5 points per game.

When you account for Douglas' points and consider the fact that the Seminoles scored a league-worst 68.3 points per game, you wouldn't think there is much reason for optimism when it comes to the offense. However, Florida State head coach Leonard Hamilton says that isn't the case.

"We think we have potential to be a much better offensive team than we have been in the past," Hamilton said. "We like this team. We feel like we have potential. But we feel like we still have to go out and earn the respect of our peers and the basketball knowledgeable people in this country. We still think that we are a team that is still a little bit of an unknown. We had one guy that averaged double-figure points last year and I think that is a little bit of a mystery to a lot of people."

While Douglas dominated the scoring column last season, Hamilton believes having more experienced players on the floor will lead to a more balanced attack. In fact, FSU returns seven of its top nine scorers from last season.

"I feel like this year's team will be different," Hamilton said. "Where we will have a lot of people sharing the scoring load. It wouldn't surprise me if we have four or five or maybe even six guys averaging in double figures."

Sophomore Center Solomon Alabi, who was the second leading scorer last season at 8.4 points per game, shares a similar view in regards to this team's potential to score.

"Whoever is in a good position to score, should be the one who scores for us on that particular play," Alabi said. "I think we play well enough with one another that we know when to take the shot and when to find our teammate."

The frontcourt is anchored by Alabi and senior Ryan Reid (4.9 ppg) but also includes versatile players like sophomore forwards Chris Singleton (8.1 ppg) and Xavier Gibson (2.3 ppg). Freshman Terrance Shannon is coming off a knee injury but provides another big body at 6-foot-8 and 220 pounds.

The backcourt will consist of multiple ball-handlers such as sophomore guard Luke Loucks, who led the team with 2.1 assists per game a season ago, and junior guard Derwin Kitchen, who averaged 7.9 points per game. The group should also have some scoring punch thanks to the long-ball capability of sophomore Deividas Dulkys (3.6 ppg) and dribble-penetration of freshman Michael Snaer. Junior wing Jordan DeMercy (3.1 ppg) will provide experienced depth and versatility. Also, redshirt freshman Pierre Jordan will provide some extra depth at point guard.

"We like all four of those positions to be interchangeable," Hamilton said. "That is why we have been going out the last two or three years getting versatile players. We practice enough where they just adjust their rules to the position they are in."

With adequate depth and multiple ball-handlers, looks for the Seminoles to also increase their offensive tempo in hopes of increased scoring.

Altering the approach on defense

A major reason for Florida State's success last season was a defense that allowed opponents to score a league-best 64.9 points per game. The 'Noles also held opponents to a .387 shooting percentage, which was also league-best. While some of the credit has to go to Douglas, last season's ACC player of the year, it also comes down to defensive principles that Hamilton and his staff teach to the players.

"I think we are going to have some more things in our defensive package to make up for some things we lost with him," Hamilton said. "We will mix in maybe a little bit more zone, maybe some different type man-to-man schemes. Basically I would think that the fact that we were the leading field-goal percentage (defense) team in the league as well as we kept the score down, I don't think we will get too far away from what has gotten us to this point."

While Hamilton admits to having concerns about his team's defense, some of his nerves have been calmed in what he saw surrounding the 'Noles' offseason trip to Spain.

"I do feel better about this team that we have gone through some of this preseason stuff and this overseas trip," he said. "We are going to be more of a containing-type team than a team that utilizes a guy's ability like we did Toney's."

This season though, FSU's head coach admits they may need to change their approach on defense. That change probably means utilizing more depth, length, and experience to control what opponents to do offensively.

"I realize that we are big and maybe we need to not put ourselves in a position where people can dictate to us by using some different offensive schemes, like they did to us last year," Hamilton said.

Florida State's roster consists of five players who stand 6-foot-8 or taller - Alabi (7-foot-1), Gibson (6-foot-11), Singleton (6-foot-9), Reid (6-foot-8), and Shannon (6-foot-8). With the league's tallest roster, FSU will have to take full advantage of its height by controlling the paint on defense.

"That is going to be one of our advantages," Alabi said. "We all bring something different to the defensive side. Xavier is really athletic while Ryan is bigger. I can change and block a lot of shots. Chris is another guy who can change shots around the basket as well. So we just have to make teams fear us in that way."

The team's defensive presence won't simply come from their frontcourt. The team's wings and guards also understand that you have to be aggressive it on both ends of the court in order to secure minutes. Dulkys, a sophomore who provided a defensive spark down the stretch last season, believes the current players are more than capable of making up for Douglas' departure.

"I love playing defense," Dulkys said. "If you show the coaches that you are willing to give it complete effort on defense, then they will be more willing to put you out there. We know Toney was great for us defensively, but we also know we can make up for not having him this year."

Set for a breakout season

While Hamilton expects his roster to share more responsibility than any of his previous seven FSU teams, it is still likely that one player will emerge from the pack and show a major improvement from last season. The most likely candidate to make the jump is sophomore forward Xavier Gibson who played only 6.4 minutes per game last season while averaging just 2.3 points.

While his time was limited, there were times that Gibson showed his athleticism and ability to make spectacular plays on both ends of the court.

"I think Xavier went through what most freshmen do, having a little bit of a learning curve," Hamilton said. "We are very confident in what we think his potential will allow for him to do for us. He is long. He has improved his stamina tremendously. He came in at like 218 (pounds) and he is close to 240 now. He has gained close to 22 pounds. He is getting stronger. He has improved his stamina which means that he will be able to give more effort for longer periods of time and his talent, I think will have an opportunity to expose itself a little more."

The Dothan, Ala. native said he has a newfound confidence in his game and believes that the past year has prepared him to play at a much higher level this season.

"I have come a long way," Gibson said. "I have grown a lot as far as a player, both physically and when it comes to thinking about how to play the game. I feel like it is about time. If I get the chance, I plan to show them something."

Another challenging schedule

Florida State will face 10 opponents this season that played in the 2008-09 NCAA Tournament. The schedule also includes 18 opponents, representing 22 games, which participated in postseason play. A majority of the Seminoles' toughest opponents will be on the road as they travel to North Carolina, Duke, Florida, Ohio State, and Orlando for the Old Spice Classic.

"I love our schedule," Singleton said. "We play a lot of really good teams who will give us different challenges and prepare us for what we hope we will be doing at the end of the year. We play some great teams this year, not to mention the conference play which is always a challenge."

Florida State will open ACC play at Georgia Tech on December 20th. Leonard Hamilton once again expects the ACC slate to prove to be an extremely difficult challenge.

"It is going to be another knockdown fight in the ACC this season," Hamilton said. "I feel like we are capable of playing with anybody though. We can compete with anybody in our league."

Before the Seminoles ever tip-off in the ACC, they will face a daunting challenge starting on November 24th when they travel to Gainesville to square off against Florida. Florida State will then play three games from the 26th to the 29th in Orlando for the Old Spice Classic before traveling to Ohio State on December 2nd for the ACC/Big Ten Challenge game against Ohio State. That stretch could go long ways to proving whether or not the Seminoles are for real.

"That stretch is going to be really difficult," Loucks said. "In a one-week span we have five games, all on national television, all on the road. That will be a tough stretch for us but I think we will be prepared and we have been in that kind of situation before."

Florida State begins the season on November 16th when they host Jacksonville University.

Final analysis

The Seminoles, who were picked in the ACC Preseason Poll to finish seventh in the league, are determined to follow-up their breakthrough season last year by making it two consecutive trips to the NCAA Tournament. To accomplish that goal FSU will have to utilize great length and depth while pacing themselves through a challenging schedule. If the Seminoles can find the right players to fill the void left by Douglas early this season, there is a good chance that they will again be dancing in March with a plethora of experienced players.


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