Seminoles 2014-15 basketball primer: NCAA tourney a feasible goal

Guard Aaron Thomas (left) averaged a team-high 14.6 points a game last season as a sophomore.

Mark L. Baer

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — The Florida State men’s basketball team heads into the 2014-15 season looking to improve on a 2013 campaign that saw the Seminoles finish 22-14.

The 22 wins, however, were not enough to make the NCAA tournament and the Seminoles ended up in their second straight NIT. Florida State advanced to the NIT’s final four where they lost to the Minnesota Golden Gophers.

This year, the Seminoles return their top scorer from a season ago in guard Aaron Thomas.

Thomas, a 6-foot-5 junior, averaged 14.6 points per game last season, a number that will need to increase if the Seminoles wish to make a run at an NCAA tournament berth. A gifted scorer, Thomas will also be asked by coaches to fill a leadership role left vacant by Okaro White (graduation).

"I feel that he’s taken his game to another level," Florida State head coach Leonard Hamilton said. "He’s solid, always been a very good defender, but offensively he’s shooting well. He’s doing all the little things that I think we’re going to need for him to do in order for us to be successful."

Redshirt graduate student Kiel Turpin and juniors Devon Bookert, Montay Brandon, Boris Bojanovsky and Michael Ojo also return for Seminoles.

Turpin (7-foot), Bojanovsky (7-3) and Ojo (7-1) offer Hamilton the luxury of one of the tallest front courts in the ACC. "Turp" and "Bo-Bo" are gifted offensive players, but both (especially Bojanovsky) must work on getting stronger so to not get pushed around down low. Ojo — who weighs 290 pounds and has 4 percent body fat — protects the rim and is a dominant rebounder, but he is raw offensively. The Seminoles big men must improve the areas in which they struggle, and it appears the trio has already begun the process.

"I have three seven-footers that all love each other," Hamilton said. "They push each other in practice. They go at each other. They correct each other. They hang out together. There’s competition among them, but there’s no jealousy. They encourage and they lift each other up."

In addition, FSU welcomes two talented freshmen, forward Phil Cofer and guard Xavier Rathan-Mayes, to the team. Cofer will be asked to provide hustle and energy on defense, while Rathan-Mayes’ role will become more defined as the season unfolds.

Jarquez Smith is a 6-9 stretch power forward entering his sophomore year, who gave the Seminoles solid minutes last year, but still has room for improvement on both sides of the court — specifically 3-point shooting (24 percent last year).

"Oh, they’re looking real good," Thomas said of the younger players. "Those guys are willing to learn. They’re asking questions. They’re actually learning quicker than what coach Hamilton thought. They’re working really hard, so those guys can bring a lot to the table."

Playing in the ACC, Florida State faces some of the nation’s top teams every year. As if Duke and North Carolina weren’t enough, the conference added powerhouse Louisville to its list of teams.

"We know Louisville is a tough team, with a good pedigree in coach (Rick) Pitino," junior guard Montay Brandon said. "If we bring our ‘A’ game, we can compete with anybody in this league. So we definitely feel like we’re ready for the challenge."

Hamilton knows how to win in the ACC, capturing the 2012 ACC championship. Before the last two seasons, he also took the Seminoles to four straight NCAA tournament appearances, something the well-traveled coach believes can happen with this team.

"We’re extremely confident," Hamilton said. "Our system has worked well for us over the last nine years. We’re the third winningest program in the ACC only behind Duke and Carolina, but we’re not satisfied with being third. I think our goal is to be the top team in the ACC, and we’re moving in that direction.

"I think we have a pretty clear understanding of who we are with our older, more experienced players, but like most coaches, we’re a little anxious with the freshmen that we have coming in that we need to really, really perform at a solid level in order for us to be successful. I have a hunch that we’re going to be just fine."

KEY LOSSES

The Seminoles lost two seniors from last year’s team. White and guard Ian Miller were both four year contributors for coach Hamilton, and are now both playing overseas in Europe.

White averaged 13.6 points and 6.8 rebounds a game in 35 starts last. White’s presence was certainly felt on the court, but where he’ll be missed most is off the court and in the locker room. White was the Seminoles’ leader and carried himself professionally, always setting a good example for Florida State’s younger players.

Miller transitioned from a starter in 2012 to a sixth man position last season. He averaged 13.7 points per game and shot 40 percent from 3-point land. Florida State and Hamilton will miss his shooting and spark off the bench.

PLAYERS TO WATCH

Junior G Aaron Thomas: The Seminoles are going to need Thomas to play at a first team All-ACC level this season. He led the team in scoring last year (14.6 ppg), but now that number will have to increase into the 17-18 ppg range — a tough task considering conference competition. Also a gifted defender, Thomas will be tasked with guarding opponents’ best scorers night-in and night-out. If he elevates his game to these levels, he’ll be a contender for ACC Player of the Year come season’s end.

Junior C Michael Ojo: Too big and too athletic, FSU coaches have been working tirelessly with the seven-footer to improve his offensive post skills. Called "the largest person I’ve ever been around" by his head coach, Ojo has the size to dominate defensively, but the Seminoles hope this is the year he puts it all together and dominates every aspect of the game.

Junior G Montay Brandon: Standing at 6-foot-8, Brandon is taller than many off his backcourt counterparts. The Seminoles are still waiting for Brandon to utilize his height advantage and become a threat on the offensive end of the court. He started all 36 games last season, but only averaged 7.3 points per game, including 25 percent from behind the arc. With Miller gone, Brandon will be asked to pick up some of the offensive load, which means improving those numbers.

DID YOU KNOW?

Over the last nine years, Florida State is the third-winningest program in the ACC. Trailing only Duke and North Carolina, the Seminoles are 196-109 in that time span.

BURNING QUESTIONS

Can Aaron Thomas be "the Guy" for Florida State?

When you watch him play, you see flashes of someone who can take over games. He is quick off the dribble and can finish around the basket, but his outside shot struggled at times — allowing defenders to play off of him and guard against the drive. With White and Miller gone, can he carry the offense consistently from game to game?. If his supporting cast can improve, along with his jump shot, Thomas will be a matchup nightmare for opponents and one of the ACC’s best players.

Will one of the seven-footers emerge as a two-way player?

Having three players that each stand seven feet or taller would be a luxury for any coach. But in the case of Hamilton, it is somewhat of a difficult situation. Bojanovsky is very talented on offense, he shot 59 percent from the field last year and has the ability to knock down mid-range jumpers at 7-foot-3, but he is too thin and gets pushed around on defense. While Ojo is a borderline liability on offense, he can really protect the rim on defense. Which leaves Turpin, the elder statesmen of the team and a player who is solid on offense and defense, as someone who could possibly become a mainstay in the lineup and add value on both sides of the court. The Seminoles will wait and see which one, if any, will fill the role.

Will Florida State make it back to the NCAA tournament?

With the addition of Louisville, the ACC is arguably the best conference in recent college basketball history. It will be tough for the Seminoles this season, but it would not be a surprise if they made it into the tournament of 68. With a core group of veteran players and three seven-footers, Florida State is primed to return to the NCAA tournament this season.