TALLAHASSEE — Florida State busted brackets around the country with an Elite Eight run in last season’s NCAA Tournament. The Seminoles surprised everyone — except perhaps themselves.
“We feel that we fell a little short last year,” coach Leonard Hamilton said. “We thought we had a chance to get to the Final Four. No one else thought we did, but that’s how we felt at the beginning of the year.”
Florida State won’t catch anyone off guard this season. The No. 17 Seminoles are one of the nation’s deepest teams and return their top two scorers and rebounders. That depth will be challenged by a preseason injury to Phil Cofer.
The senior forward is expected to miss at least six weeks after injuring his right foot in practice. Cofer, who led the Seminoles in scoring (12.8 points) and was second in rebounding (5.1), could miss most or all of the non-conference games.
“We have to make some adjustments in our rotation,” Hamilton said. “But hopefully Phil will come back strong. Other guys will have more opportunity to get more minutes here early.”
Those opportunities will come immediately as Florida State opens with Florida on Tuesday, will face No. 24 Purdue in November and Connecticut in December. The Seminoles also play six Atlantic Coast Conference teams that are ranked in the Top 25.
Depth has been a critical piece of Florida State’s success in recent years and that will be crucial again with Cofer out. The Seminoles played portions of last season without center Christ Koumadje (11 games) and guard P.J. Savoy (eight games), and they will need to adjust again without Cofer.
There is reason for optimism as the Seminoles can lean on veterans like guards Terance Mann, Trent Forrest and P.J. Savoy, Koumadje and sophomore forwards Mfiondu Kabengele and Wyatt Wilkes.
Each player has a defined role. Mann is the “glue guy” or leader. Forrest takes over as the starting point guard. Savoy is the 3-point specialist off the bench. Koumadje, at 7-foot-4, blocks or alters shots. Kabengele is a versatile stretch forward who can play multiple positions. Wilkes has refined his jump shot. Sophomore guard M.J. Walker has “figured it out,” Hamilton said, after an up-and-down freshman season.
The Seminoles could be one of the longshots to watch in the ACC. Even without Cofer in the early portion of the season, Hamilton feels that the Seminoles win games by committee.
“Right now if I had to pick a starting lineup, I’d say I have a starting eight, but I’m going to have a starting nine or 10,” Hamilton said. “We feel like the strength of our team is in our numbers.”
Some other things to watch this season:
Kabengele hardly looks like the raw prospect who had to redshirt in 2016-17 as he began to reshape his body. The 6-foot-10 Kabengele dropped 19 pounds and made the most of his 14 minutes per game in 2017-18, contributing 7.2 points and 4.6 rebounds.
The nephew of former NBA star Dikembe Mutombo has been fine-tuning his ball handling and 3-point shot, viewing himself as a valuable piece of the Seminoles’ season.
“My goal is to be the leading rebounder on this team,” Kabengele said. “Be a rebounder, be a post scorer, be a great screener. Because when I set good screens I get open.”
WALKER TAKING STEP FORWARD
M.J. Walker had bright spots but also low points in an inconsistent freshman season. The 6-5 Walker dropped 24 points in a road win over Virginia Tech but also frequently saw his 3-point shot miss the mark.
Walker has shown signs of going from a contributor off the bench to a potential starter.
“I have been unbelievably pleased with the progress he’s made from his freshman year to his sophomore year,” Hamilton said. “He’s a great youngster who gave us a tremendous lift offensively last year, but he was trying to figure it out, and I think he’s figured it out. His defense has been outstanding. He’s playing with an extreme amount of confidence.”
NICHOLS COULD DROP DIMES
Florida State has only had two graduate transfers in men’s basketball. David Nichols, who played three seasons at Albany, is the first since Jeff Peterson joined the Seminoles in 2011-12.
Nichols, a 6-1 guard, accumulated 1,092 points in his sophomore and junior seasons at Albany. He also averaged 3.5 assists in 2017-18. Nichols could be a sixth man off the bench or play in a three-guard lineup.