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  • After a surprising run to the Elite Eight, FSU opened its season with a statement rout of rival Florida. Overlook the Seminoles and their defense at your own risk.
By Molly Geary
November 08, 2018

If you were one of 2.85 million college basketball fans watching Duke throttle Kentucky on Tuesday, you probably missed opening night’s other most notable result: Florida State routing rival Florida.

For the second year in a row, the Seminoles easily dispatched the Gators, this time at home in Tallahassee for the ’Noles fifth-straight win in the in-state series. The final margin was 81–60, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. This was a beatdown; a game that was 74–39 with just five and a half minutes to go before a garbage time run by the visitors salvaged some dignity.

Unlike last year, when FSU went into Gainesville and stunned the No. 5 team in the country by a similar final score, 83–66, Florida State was favored this time around. Fresh off a trip to the Elite Eight and with most key players back, the Seminoles started the year ranked No. 17 in the AP poll and No. 14 in Sports Illustrated’s rankings. The Gators, meanwhile, lost two starters but were considered a fringe top-25 team with plenty of talent.

The latter still may be true—after all, it’s only one game. And Florida was breaking in a new point guard, five-star freshman Andrew Nembhard, who should only get better as the season continues. But it’s time to start taking Florida State seriously, because something’s brewing in Tallahassee.

Leonard Hamilton’s team had its moments in 2017–18, including the aforementioned win over the Gators and wins over UNC, Clemson and Miami, but ultimately finished with a .500 record in the loaded ACC. The Seminoles’ run to the Elite Eight, therefore, caught many by surprise as they knocked off No. 9 seed Missouri, No. 1 seed Xavier and No. 4 seed Gonzaga before falling by four to eventual national runner-up Michigan.

Florida State’s March run came on the back of its length and physicality, which drove an efficient team like Gonzaga crazy in holding the Zags to their lowest points per possession mark (0.82) of the entire season. That was no coincidence—FSU held Missouri and Michigan to their second-lowest PPP, and Xavier to its seventh lowest. Teams struggled to get off good shots and hang onto the ball against the ’Noles, and it almost resulted in a trip to the Final Four.

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There’s reason to believe that the Florida State team that showed up in March and against Florida on Tuesday night is the one that’s here to stay. Last month, an anonymous ACC coach told SI.com’s Emily Caron that late last season, FSU was “as unified of a group as I’d seen in a long time from a team down there ... There’s always talent there, but I think they figured out how they had to play. I know [Coach Hamilton] is going to push those guys to play together and be unselfish and really pester you defensively, which makes it hard to run your stuff.”

Unselfish. That’s a good word to describe a team that had three different players average between 12 and 13 points in ’17–18 and another four average between 7.0 and 8.0. Five of those seven players are back, as well as 7'4" senior center Christ Koumadje and senior guard P.J. Savoy, who both started against Florida (Savoy hit five threes and scored a game-high 20 points).

The lack of a go-to player can at times limit a team, but senior Terance Mann has the ability to fill a crunch-time role when needed. And don’t forget about top senior forward Phil Cofer, who averaged 12.8 points and 5.1 rebounds a season ago and didn’t play on Tuesday as he recovers from a foot injury. His absence makes it all the more impressive that the Seminoles cruised past a tournament-minded opponent.

In case you haven’t figured it out from the numerous mentions yet, the other advantage this team has is that it’s senior-laden. It’s also buoyed by sophomore guard M.J. Walker, a former top-30 recruit, and junior Trent Forrest, who chipped in 13 points and five assists against the Gators. But on defense is where Florida State once again shined the brightest Tuesday, utilizing a full-court press to limit Florida to 32 points in the first 30 minutes of play—yes, that’s a rate of 1.07 points per minute—before Florida cleaned things up late to soften the final margin.

Jalen Hudson, the Gators’ leading scorer last year, was held to just 11 points on 3-of-10 shooting, and senior starter KeVaughn Allen was scoreless in 23 minutes. Nembhard finished with 12 points on 4-of-8 shooting in his debut but had four turnovers.

Starting Gators big men Keith Stone and Kevarrius Hayes totaled just 10 points (and 14 rebounds) and turned it over four times apiece going against the Seminoles’ front line. Just look at how tough the length and defense of 6'10" Mfiondu Kabengele made this fadeaway attempt by Stone:

Florida is no Duke—which put on an explosive offensive show at the same time on Tuesday—but that shouldn’t take away from Florida State’s statement win. The Seminoles should be rewarded for their opening blowout with a leap in the polls on Monday, and while it’s unlikely they crack the top 10, it may only be a matter of time before they get there. The reality for FSU is that it plays in the ACC, an incredibly deep conference that through Wednesday’s action has five teams in kenpom.com’s top 10 (the ’Noles are No. 10), but there’s no reason (O.K., outside of Duke keeping this up for three months) to think it can’t contend.

In the meantime, its next big test will come at the AdvoCare Invitational during Thanksgiving weekend. After an opener with UAB, FSU should face No. 23 LSU in the semifinal—win that, and Villanova will likely be waiting in the championship game. That tournament is a chance for these Seminoles to truly announce themselves to the college hoops world, but perhaps we should already be listening.

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