The Jackets open their conference season against ACC contenders, Florida State. Before the game, we sat down with Saiem Gilani of Tomahawk Nation to pick his brain on this Noles team and what he expects out of this matchup.
FTRS: You guys are off to a 3-0 start and are fresh off of two good wins against Indiana and rival Florida. With the blue bloods of the conference looking vulnerable early, what are the expectations for this team? Is this a team that can win the league?
Saiem: The only kind of bloods I’m worried about are the new bloods, as Coach Leonard Hamilton and Charlton Young like to refer to the FSU program. Anything less than 4th would be a subpar season by the standard they have set over the last several years. For the past two or three years, I thought each successive team would be better than the last. That is, despite losing four NBA draft picks over the 2017-2019 drafts, I felt the roster was continuing to trend toward higher efficiency. This season, after losing two lottery picks, I expect this team will be almost as efficient as the 2020 ACC champions. Could they win the league? Yes. I expect them to contend for top honors.
FTRS: MJ Walker is a guy who’s services I remember GT competing with FSU for among others in recruiting. He was a solid contributor for you guys for three years but seems to really have made a jump going into his senior year. What do you think has contributed to that and what’s most enjoyable (or in my case, what do I need to be worried about) when it comes to his game?
Saiem: Thus far this season, I am impressed with his demonstrated growth. Walker’s rating out of high school influenced fan expectations on how good he would be and when. His growth over the last few years has been as a teammate and leader, though. When he arrived at FSU, there were already leaders on the roster and a program whose culture was strong. He had to buy-in to his role, provide exceptional defense, and step up when called upon to make a play. By all accounts, he has lived up to the coaching staff’s expectations and is the de facto leader of this team.
He is likely to finish as the best free throw shooter on the team (96% this season, 80% career) and his shooting from distance is good (46% this season, 35% career). He is not the guy I would go to for creating offense off the dribble given his 19-20% career turnover rate. He comes up in big moments and big games, though, and he appears to have worked on his craft during the pandemic. Fierce competitor and a pedigree of winning.
FTRS: There’s a pretty big drop off scoring wise between Walker and the rest of your team. If he’s the #1 option is there a clear secondary focus on offense or are you more or less relying on a collective effort from the rest of the team?
Saiem: Walker’s numbers are definitely inflated by his free throw numbers. He is currently averaging 8 FT attempts per game, while his career average is 2.2 attempts. I would not even consider MJ the focal point of the offense for two reasons:
* It starts with FSU’s defense, which tries to turn you over by pirating the passing lanes so they can push the tempo. That is an equal opportunity for anyone willing to run.
* The read-and-react offense adopted by the coaching staff has the flexibility for the whole team to get involved. It allows for the easy isolation of preferred matchups within the flow of the offense. Movement without the ball is the crux of the offense and reacting to the movement of the ball in part dictates what action each player not directly around the ball takes. Wings will come off a variety of screens to get open for threes and I have some bad news for Tech fans. This team might have the best set of shooters of the Hamilton era at Florida State.
There are at least 5 guys on this roster that would average 10+ points per game given normal minutes and usage. Scottie Barnes is a star, of both the basketball and Dancing with varieties. He can beat guys off the dribble, hit from distance, and as a 6’9” point guard, he poses a problem for Tech, the ACC, and probably Ben Simmons. Last season, Sardaar Calhoun, the #4 JUCO recruit, hit 48.5% from distance and 83% from the line, averaging 19 ppg (on 13 shots). He did that in under 20 minutes per game.
FTRS: You guys are the poster children for having long and athletic players at every position. With the tallest roster in the sport, it seems like more of the same this year. Typically, you guys use those advantages to pound teams off the dribble and defend extremely well. Is there a different make up to this team or is that what I should expect on Tuesday?
Saiem: Think taller. The shortest scholarship player is 6’4” Rayquan Evans. The starting lineup features Barnes, Walker (6’5”) and Anthony Polite (6’6”) at the wings. Barnes has already shown a knack for creating problems for opposing ball-handlers. The lefty Anthony Polite is, in my humble opinion, the best perimeter defender in the ACC. That is more or less the same as prior years.
Oh also, FSU starts 6’9” Point Forward Raiquan Gray and the skilled 7’1” Balsa Koprivica. According to KenPom, the Seminoles’ top three players in assist rate are Barnes (39.6%, 30th), Wyatt Wilkes (34.5%), and Gray (19%). All check-in at 6’8” or taller. All three force turnovers and at least two are a threat to drive to the basket. Folks around the program insist that Wilkes is the best shooter on the team, as well.
FTRS: Another thing I always associate with your teams under Leonard Hamilton is a deep bench. You guys are averaging 10 guys with more than 10 minutes per game so far this season. It’s not easy to consistently construct a team that is solid across the board with very little drop off from first to second unit so how do you guys manage to do it?
Saiem: First thing is development. Unless your school is a Kentucky and you have 9 top-30 players on the roster, that’s the most critical piece. Florida State’s Stan Jones is the best developer of big men in the country and has been at the center of all the success. Coach Charlton Young though, phew, he’s a bloodhound for talent before it has ripened. To paraphrase, everyone wants to have tons of top-30 players with boat loads of talent and yes, you must put in the work to land those recruits. The problem is those kids are difficult to land and their best basketball won’t happen on your campus.
The key element is identifying the kids that will blossom during their time on campus early (as 9th-10th graders). Lock them down and hide ‘em. Then through strong development and them reaching physical maturity, look smart. I am sure Coach CY would like me to remind you that he competed for the commitment of #11 pick Devin Vassel with powerhouses like University of North Florida and Stetson.
FTRS: Give me an X-factor and prediction for the game.
Do not let both of these things happen:
* Have both Scottie Barnes and Raiquan Gray turn into turnover machines.
* Shoot under 25% from 3.
FSU 84 - GT 70
Many thanks to Saiem for taking the time to answer our questions. He provided us with some really in depth insights that gave us a good idea what to expect on Tuesday. He also spent some time at Tech as a student so in the interest of that, be sure to check out his work and all other FSU content at Tomahawk Nation. Here are his answers to our questions.