ORLANDO, Fla. — Jonathan Isaac didn’t even bother trying to play it cool after his first NCAA tournament game. “My anxiety level was through the roof to start,” the Florida State freshman wing said early Friday morning. In fact, it took nearly the entire first half of the Seminoles’ 86-80 win over Florida Gulf Coast for the (likely) one-and-done star to settle.
Fortunately for Isaac, his partner on the other wing on this absurdly long, 12-deep group of tourney rookies didn’t share that anxiety. “It’s regular basketball to me,” sophomore Dwayne Bacon said. “The only thing is it’s win or go home. And we don’t want to go home.” If Florida State’s dynamic duo can replicate what it did Thursday night against the Eagles, the Seminoles might play a couple of weeks longer. Bacon and Isaac combined for 42 points, 19 rebounds and seven assists. They’ll lead Florida State against No. 11 seed Xavier on Saturday in the round of 32. The Seminoles’ size inside—and their ability to run similarly huge replacements off the bench in waves—makes them unique, but Isaac and Bacon make them dangerous.
Bacon, as wily a veteran as a sophomore can be, is a 6-7 slasher who isn’t afraid to attack a post player at the rim. After leading the Seminoles in scoring as a freshman, Bacon tested the NBA draft waters. When he opted to return to Tallahassee last year, he told reporters that he “didn’t want to settle for just getting drafted.” He also mentioned the possibility of playing in the NCAAs, something the Seminoles hadn’t done since 2012.
Bacon had reason to be excited about this season. Point guard Xavier Rathan-Mayes made a similar decision. Seven-foot, 300-pound center Michael Ojo would be back for a fifth year after missing last season with a knee injury. Terance Mann was ready to move from role player to starter. Most importantly, Isaac had announced he would indeed attend Florida State. Isaac, who turned 19 in October, might have been able to enter the draft because he started high school in 2011. But instead of testing the vagaries of the NBA’s age limit —the fact that Isaac didn’t get his high school diploma until last year worked against him—the 6-10, 210-pounder decided to join the Seminoles. Florida State would have a stretch forward who could score from inside or outside and protect the rim on defense.
But how would Isaac fit into a deep group with defined roles? Fairly easily—thanks in part to a huge physical change that turned him from a high-scoring high school point guard to a potential lottery pick. Isaac assimilated easily into an already tight group of Florida State players because he didn’t come in looking for shots. He simply tried to help however he could. That’s how he wound up leading the Seminoles in rebounds (7.7 a game) and blocks (48). The offense (12.1 points a game) came within the natural flow of the game. “Jonathan is an unselfish guy by nature. That’s who he is,” said Florida State assistant Dennis Gates, who was Isaac’s lead recruiter. “He cares about others. He cares about his teammates. Whether he scores two points, 10 points or 20 points.”
Gates believes the seven-inch growth spurt that turned Isaac from a 6-3 point guard—during his first two years at Barron Collier High in Naples, Fla.—into a 6-10 weapon with no fixed position—during his final high school year at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla.—also helped create a more balanced player. Isaac got taller but never lost his handle. He could block shots, but he could also hit threes. He didn’t need to play on a block or a wing, and he didn’t feel compelled to finish every time he got the ball. “If I was a five man throughout my career, I’d only see the game through that lens,” Gates said. “Because of that growth spurt, Jonathan was afforded the chance to see the game through a different lens and still keep the skill set he had from when he started playing basketball.”
Seminoles coach Leonard Hamilton believes the view through those lenses allowed Issac to advance beyond his peers. “Jonathan came into our program with tremendous high basketball IQ, and he values all the intangible things that sometimes it takes years to develop,” He makes good decisions with the ball. He doesn't force anything. He loves playing defense. He's a good rebounder, and he doesn't force any shots. So those things he brought to the table. I'd like to take credit for teaching him some of that, but he has an instinctive feel for the game.”
Isaac may become more assertive in the NBA, where more open spacing should allow him to utilize all the tools at his disposal. For now, he’s content to defer to Bacon, who is happy to play the alpha role. Bacon has led the Seminoles in scoring in 22 of their 34 games, including six of the past seven. He scored 25 against Florida Gulf Coast, while Isaac stuffed the stat sheet with 17 points, 10 rebounds, five assists and three blocks. “Bake does what Bake does,” Isaac said. “The guy’s a freak. He can score the ball in so many different ways. When he’s aggressive, this team can go far.”
Florida State has Final Four talent, but the Seminoles’ run could end Saturday if they aren’t careful. Thursday, Florida State kept chucking threes even though they weren’t falling—2-of-13, to be exact—and the Seminoles’ prohibitive size advantage made it easy to score inside. (They shot 68.2 percent from two-point range and took 39 free throws.) Also, the Seminoles will need to adjust more quickly against better opponents. On Thursday, the Eagles shifted to a zone defense Florida State players hadn’t seen from the them on film. That shift turned a 28-21 Florida State lead into a 31-28 Florida Gulf Coast lead before the Seminoles began cracking the zone with a Bacon jumper and an Isaac dunk. Eventually, Florida Gulf Coast shifted back to man-to-man. A better equipped opponent from a tougher league—Xavier, for example—might use such a tactical shift to build an insurmountable lead.
But Florida State can keep opponents off balance if its star duo performs up to its potential. Issac’s anxiety has dissipated. Bacon remains ready to attack the basket. He also knows the Seminoles can only keep advancing if he and Isaac each do what makes them special. “When me and Jon are rebounding and scoring the ball at the same time,” Bacon said, “we’re a team that can be unstoppable.”