Florida State Confident It Can Take the Next Step

Coming off a season where it was the ACC's No. 1 seed, the Seminoles believe this year's team is even better.
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If you were expecting to do your part on social media to make any video of Florida State’s men’s locker room celebration go viral after its 80–61 shellacking of then No. 20 Clemson on Saturday, you might be still waiting around for said celebration.

The Seminoles not only did not celebrate the win, they also didn’t understand the social media shock that accompanied a victory in which they led by as many as 38.

“It’s weird. I didn’t even know [about reactions on social media],” says Seminoles senior guard M.J. Walker, who will lead No. 16 Florida State against Miami on Wednesday. “We just try and focus on us and what we do. That’s why I don’t read social media stuff or media articles. We’re not thinking about what’s a shock and what’s not a shock to people. Why would we celebrate? We haven’t reached the level we need to be playing at.”

Florida State guard M.J. Walker shoots a layup

Why, indeed.

After all, the last time Florida State had seen Clemson was last March 12, when college basketball shut down its season due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Seminoles were the ACC’s top seed and heavily favored to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament.

As they huddled on the floor of the Greensboro Coliseum around their shiny new ACC tournament trophy—awarded to FSU since it had won the regular season—their facial expressions read more annoyed than proud.

“I think a lot of the guys felt like they got robbed that day,” says Seminoles freshman point guard Scottie Barnes. “They felt like they had a really good chance to win a national title last year.”

Walker downplayed the correlation between that anger and Saturday’s trouncing, before expanding on the emotions he and his teammates felt in the moment they realized their season was done.

“It took a lot out of us mentally,” Walker says. “We had a real opportunity to prove to the world who we were. It hurt.”

The sting was especially intense for Walker.

He’s different from most players, who complain about a lack of national respect; instead, he understands what he feels is a knee-jerk reaction to anoint teams who have been traditionally strong.

So, no, he’s not going to highlight the fact that Florida State has been on a consistent upward trajectory with an ACC title, an Elite Eight finish and a Sweet 16 finish in the last three years as evidence of why it’s past time to give the program its due.

“I understand the lack of respect. I’m not mad at it,” Walker says. “That’s why you can have certain blueblood programs that aren’t doing as well one year still be considered top teams. It’s their history, their tradition. We had a chance to make a historic move last year, but we’re past that now. We’re fully focused on this season. This team is better than last year’s team.”

Certainly, that’s a hot take for a team that finished No. 1 in the ACC and had two players—Patrick Williams at No. 4 and Devin Vassell at No. 11—selected in the NBA draft lottery in November.

Still, Walker’s point is well put if you take a deeper dive.

Florida State added a probable lottery pick in Barnes, an all-everything type of player who creates for everyone and defends all five positions. The team is deeper than it was last season, and it’s shooting lights out from the perimeter.

Yes, the Seminoles are still applying their trademark defensive pressure, suffocating the ball for 94 feet, using their length to disrupt opposing teams in the half court and leading the league in blocks at nearly 5.2 per game. But now, they’re also draining a league-best 39.1% of their three-point shots.

That stat is vital for a roster stocked full of capable lane penetrators, a Leonard Hamilton trademark.

Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton

“We’ve got a lot of talent,” Walker says. “But we’ve gotta be locked in every night and approach every game like it’s a championship game. We have a lot of confidence in ourselves.”

Barnes says his team’s confidence is rooted in its ability to reach its goals on key defensive stats.

Florida State charts what it calls “defensive grading stats,” which include things like deflections, closing out with high hands, containing the dribble and putting hands in passing lanes.

“When we get to 70% on that, we usually win,” Barnes said. “We’re confident that we’ll do the little things. That’s the focus for us.”

That, and what Barnes referred to as “a healthy fear of losing.”

“It gives you a sense of urgency to play as hard as you can,” Barnes says. “You need that. With us, we really create our own destiny. We know what we can do. When we’re all locked in you, we can be great.”