The Rutgers men’s basketball may be having deja vu, as they enter the ACC/Big Ten Challenge for the second straight year with a 6-0 record. Like last season, the Scarlet Knights take on a team from the sunshine state, but this time it is Florida State instead of Miami. Even better, Rutgers will host this year’s matchup, which is easily the biggest test of the young season for head coach Steve Pikiell’s team.
The Seminoles are coming off of a 26 win campaign and a second round appearance in last season’s NCAA Tournament. However, they lost the majority of the starters from that team and are now relying on a lot of players stepping up in key roles for the first time in their careers. Despite a new mix of players, Florida State is off to its first 5-0 start in six seasons.
To get ready for this game, I was fortunate to speak with Michael Rogner from SB Nation’s Florida State site, Tomahawk Nation. I asked Michael about the Seminoles high scoring offense, their impact freshmen, as well as expectations for this season. Let’s tip things off here.
In losing the majority of starters from last year 's team, including two to the NBA, Florida State needed to replace a lot of production heading into this season. Leonard Hamilton is playing a lot of guys early on, but veterans Terance Mann, Phil Cofer, and Braian Angola have really stepped up so far. How important have they been to the 5-0 start and could this year's team actually deeper than last season? Do fans expect another NCAA Tournament berth this season?
MR: Terance Mann is really the key to the team. He'll play more minutes than everyone, and the coaches ask a lot of him. He'll direct the offense. He'll score when needed. He defends and plays hard. Cofer has battled injuries for his entire career, so it is finally good to see him healthy and contributing as a senior, and Angola is probably the best natural scorer on the roster. But no one is going to put up eye popping stats because no one (aside from Mann) plays a ton of minutes. Coach Hamilton likes to go deep into his bench, and last year had 11 guys playing double figure minutes. This year's roster isn't as deep, as two guys are redshirting, and starting center Christ Koumadje is out for a while with an lower leg injury. He plays so many guys because of the effort it takes to run the system, and he wants to wear other teams down. But we're already down to 10 scholarship players and a walk-on who is part of the rotation.
Fans are probably split on the issue of how good this team is. This is expected to be a bubble team, and I think at this point it is more likely a team which will end up on the wrong side of the bubble.
Freshmen MJ Walker and Mfiondu Kabengele have been big contributors early on as well. How have they meshed with the veterans and do you expect them to gain even more minutes as the season progresses? Also, what is the health status of Walker for Tuesday's game against Rutgers?
MR: The coaching staff rarely discusses injuries, so there will be no update on MJ Walker, but I expect him to go. He and Kabengele has fit in well with the veterans. Both are high volume guys - they aren't afraid to put up shots - and both are just scratching their potential but have the look of NBA players. Walker was getting football offers from high major programs, and he's tough, as expected. Foul trouble is what has been keeping him off the floor, as he tries too hard to make plays. Kabengele is a fascinating prospect. He got no attention in high school, a bit more in his year at a prep school, and then redshirted last year as he was super raw. Now he's being asked to play the post, and on the wing, depending on the rotation. He's had great success in limited minutes (a double-double in 14 minutes on Friday), so it will be interesting to see how he performs now that more post minutes are available with Koumadje's injury.
Florida State is averaging 91 points a game coming into this matchup, shooting the ball 53% from the floor and 36% from three-point range. How much do the Seminoles look to push the pace and generate points in transition, as well as shoot from behind the arc out of the break?
MR: The system is geared for transition. They pressure (mostly in half court) passing lanes to try and generate live ball turnovers. They play a positionless system with at least four guys on the floor at all times who can lead the break. And they'll even try and run after made baskets. To win, they really need to get out in transition, as the offense tends to bog down in half court. This team is definitely shooting more 3s than last year, though maybe not as many as I expected. Part of this is that three freshmen aren't ready and they can all shoot the ball.
The Seminoles have been very good defensively from a stats perspective so far. How many different looks have they shown on the defensive end so far and how big of an issue has it been with keeping the opposition off of the offensive glass?
MR: They occasionally show a full court press, and they'll tweak how they help and recover, but for the most part Ham's defense rarely makes any big changes (say, to a zone). They play very high on the wings, which will open up back cuts, and front the post further away from the basket than any other team I've seen. The design is to sell out to take away easy 2s. The system (and the current roster) lead to a lot of offensive boards for the opposition. Since our center is fronting the post, this puts him in poor position to rebound. And since everyone wants to get out and run, a lot of guys end up leaking out. In our "keys to the season" piece before any games were played, we highlighted defensive rebounding as the giant red flag for this team, and so far they've been pretty bad.
What's the biggest weakness for FSU so far and how would you gameplan against them?
MR: Don't run with them, or the game is over. Slow things down, and take advantage of their over aggressiveness - back cuts, pump fakes. And sell out on the offensive glass. Defensively, pack it in and force Florida State to become a jump shooting team.
What is your prediction for the game?
MR: I think Rutgers will struggle against the defense, but it will hardly matter because you'll get so many 2nd chance opportunities. FSU will need to shoot well from deep to win, and I think they'll do that, taking home a close win. I'll take 72-68.
Thanks again to Michael for giving us great insight on Tuesday’s opponent for Rutgers basketball. You can follow Michael on twitter here and for more on Florida State, visit Tomahawk Nation. To read my answers to Michael’s questions on Rutgers basketball, click here.