Last spring, as I attempted to make sense of Florida State's surprising run to the Sweet 16 and of the role of Leonard Hamilton's consistently brutal man-to-man defense, I spoke with the team's point guard, Derwin Kitchen. I asked him why his team was so difficult to crack defensively, and yet somehow so consistently mediocre on offense. He wasn't quite sure, but he did his best:
The scouting report on Hamilton's team has been -- and, frankly, is -- pretty simple. FSU can guard you. But you can guard FSU. "We've been so bad on offense, we know we better stop the other team," Kitchen said.
That was Florida State: Sure, they defended like crazy, but they just as frequently managed to be so bad on the offensive end it totally negated their brilliant performances on the defensive end. The Seminoles couldn't shoot. They turned the ball over. They did these things to your offense too, of course, but often not quite as frequently as they did it to themselves. When did they have stretches of mere marginal offensive improvement -- when they didn't shoot themselves in the foot quite so often -- they were capable of very good wins. One such stretch came in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament (aided by a matchup with a totally overwhelmed, unathletic Notre Dame attack) as Hamilton led his long-dormant program to its first Sweet 16 since 1993.
For much of the 2011-12 season, we got the Florida State we know and love. Great defense. Bad offense. And so the questionable losses piled up: The Seminoles scored 41 points in 61 possessions versus Harvard. They never stood a chance on the road at Michigan State or Florida. On Dec. 30, FSU scored .90 points per trip in a triple-overtime home loss to Princeton. As recently as Jan. 7, Florida State was still more than capable of stinkers, as in their 79-59 road loss at Clemson in which they scored .88 ppp and turned the ball over on nearly 24 percent of available possessions.
Something strange has happened these last four games, though. Florida State isn't just marginally better on offense. It is drastically -- borderline miraculously -- better.
Per Statsheet.com, the Seminoles have averaged 1.14 points per trip in each of their past four conference games. That mark has a lot to do with their sheer domination of North Carolina last Saturday, not to mention a comprehensive 84-points-in-66-possessions walloping of Maryland. But it continued Saturday at Duke, always a difficult place to score and win, as the Seminoles averaged 1.13 ppp. Why the sudden change? All of a sudden, the Seminoles are lighting up the ACC. Why?
The answer is mostly super simple: shooting. Per Ken Pomeroy's metrics, since the start of league play the Seminoles are second in the ACC in effective field goal percentage (51.0). They're also second in offensive rebounding rate and that doesn't hurt, either, but Florida State has been an effective rebounding bunch all season. What it hasn't always done is make shots. Now that the shots are falling -- whether big ones like Michael Snaer's Saturday game-winner at Duke, or the barrage of eight threes Deividas Dulkys made versus UNC -- Florida State presents a much more difficult, all-encompassing challenge.
Then again, they are also prone to any forthcoming slump. One positive sign during the past two games is the decrease in FSU's turnover rate, which throughout 2012 has been among the highest in the country. The Seminoles turned the ball over on just 13 percent of their possessions versus Maryland and just 17 precent versus Duke, a stark decrease from their season average of 24.6 percent. But in the other two recent wins, the turnover rate was as high (or higher) than the average. Hamilton has told reporters he believes Luke Loucks is a serious remedy at the point guard spot; you saw his passing ability on Snaer's game-winner Saturday. But the point is, FSU's improvement is vulnerable to two potential regressions: A decline in either turnover rate, field goal efficiency or both. If FSU starts bricking shots again, or if its anecdotally possession-cautious ways yield to the team's turnover-prone long-term tendencies, it won't be nearly as good as we've seen in the past four weeks.
But what if this is for real? That would be scary. We know how well this team defends. We've seen it for three straight seasons in Tallahassee. What we haven't seen is offense -- sustained, serious, not-just-a-hot-spurt quality offensive play. Which is this? It may just be a hot couple of games. That seemed to be the case in March, too. But if this is real, if it's more about genuine, core improvement, FSU has a chance to be much more than "the third-best team in the ACC." No, no. It will be capable of far more than that.