For any school that dares to try to break into the upper echelon of men’s college basketball, the programs at the top often serve as a firewall. For years, Leonard Hamilton and football-crazed Florida State brushed up against the door to the top tier of the ACC but couldn’t break through and win the regular-season title. The Seminoles hired Hamilton in 2002, and since 2009, they had not finished worse than 8-10 in the league but had also never won it. That changed on the last day of the ACC’s regular season, when Hamilton’s team capped a storybook regular season by beating Boston College to win the school’s first ACC title by one game.
Normally, today would be the first day of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament, a day when overachievers like Florida State start dreaming of storybook endings. But the worldwide coronavirus pandemic halted the American sports schedule, and the NCAA canceled this year’s Big Dance, leaving schools like FSU to wonder what could have been. Undoubtedly, the next few weeks would have been filled with origin stories of schools that mounted breakout seasons. Those seasons were prematurely cut short, but now it’s worth stepping back and recognizing the tales never told.
How did the Seminoles finally vanquish those mighty champions in the ACC? By sticking with the philosophy that makes them unique even in this star-studded league. Hamilton is now the conference’s second-longest-tenured coach behind Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski,1 a testament to the value of continuity. Florida State did not have the most five-star athletes in the league, but it was the deepest team and, from a sheer height standpoint, it was the biggest.
It’s a rule of thumb starting on the grade-school playground that the tallest kids make for the best players. But no current team has built its program on 7-foot-plus, rim-protecting, shot-blocking giants as much as Florida State. The Seminoles led the country this season in Ken Pomeroy’s average height metric at 79.02 inches.2 They’ve been in the top 12 every year since 2008-09.3 This year’s team deployed 7-foot-1 freshman Balsa Koprivica and 7-foot Ole Miss transfer Dominik Olejniczak, who had a 6.3 percent block rate, to generate an extra rim presence.
There’s a clear link between Florida State’s size and its success. The Seminoles blocked 15.9 percent of opponents’ shots, the third-best rate in the country and the program’s best since 2012, which in turn was a big reason that Florida State ranked 15th in the country in adjusted defensive efficiency. Even in the backcourt, nobody shorter than 6-foot-4 played meaningful minutes, and that length was an important factor in the defense’s top-10 ranking in steal rate.
The Seminoles have had at least one player 7-foot-1 or taller play at least 20 percent of minutes every year since 2012-13, and all of them were born in foreign countries. Before Koprivica, who is originally from Serbia, there was Christ Koumadje (7-foot-4, from Chad), and before him there was Michael Ojo (7-foot-1, from Nigeria), and before him there was Boris Bojanovsky (7-foot-3, from Slovakia). Players like them are sometimes seen as novelties. Only three of the top 300 recruits were listed taller than 7 feet in 247sports.com’s 2019 composite rankings.4 But Florida State has used such players to produce a sustainable focus on defense.
Of the teams that have been in Division I since 2001-02, the first year of Ken Pomeroy’s adjusted efficiency statistics, 15 teams’ best pre-NCAA Tournament rankings in that span came this season. Seven of those were likely or certain to make the NCAA Tournament — and to make some noise when they did — meaning last week’s ending is particularly harsh for them.
Scott Drew’s team finished this season ranked third on Kenpom.com, five spots higher than its previous highest season-ending ranking. It all came together this season for the Bears, who won at Kansas’s Allen Fieldhouse for the first time and reached the top of the national polls. They dropped three of their last five to finish 26-4, but they were still in position for a No. 1 seed.
The difference in this year’s team was its defense. Drew’s previous groups had made NCAA Tournament runs with a 2-3 zone, but with a bevy of talented athletes, especially in the backcourt, this year’s Bears were stifling with man-to-man. They finished fourth in adjusted defensive efficiency and came up with steals on 12.1 percent of opposing possessions, 12th-best in the country.
San Diego State
Not even Kawhi Leonard’s San Diego State teams could claim what this year’s did: a 26-0 start, best in program history, and a No. 6 ranking on Kenpom.com. The Aztecs slipped up against UNLV on Feb. 22 and lost to Utah State on a cold-blooded buzzer-beater by Sam Merrill in the Mountain West Tournament final, but those were the only blemishes on a spectacular season.
San Diego State was likely heading for a No. 2 seed, perhaps an advantage since it could have opened up potential second-weekend games in nearby Los Angeles. Junior point guard Malachi Flynn’s NBA draft decision will mean a great deal for the Aztecs’ chances of making a similar run next season.
The headline-grabbing mid-major was Dayton, which also put itself in position for a No. 1 seed and, with its highlight-reel dunks, achieved more national attention than we usually see for a program of its stature. Obi Toppin became the nation’s favorite dunker, and the Flyers were more than just style — they ran the table in the Atlantic-10 and entered the postseason at 29-2.
This ending is far too cruel for a Dayton team that may not achieve such heights again for a while. Toppin, a projected lottery pick, will declare for the NBA draft early, according to a report.
Seton Hall was rolling into its fifth-straight NCAA Tournament trip, none more promising than this one as a potential No. 3 seed. Previous teams had given the program the postseason experience it needed, and this year’s group had a bona fide star in Myles Powell. The Pirates haven’t reached the tournament’s second weekend since 2000.
This March won’t take anything away from Powell, who ends an illustrious career as a 2,000-point scorer with a major hand in that NCAA Tournament streak. He may have played his way into the NBA draft, too.
East Tennessee State
If you were looking for an obscure mid-major to make a surprise run into the second weekend, East Tennessee State would have been a decent choice. The Buccaneers had won 12 straight games to finish 30-4 after winning the Southern Conference Tournament. That was their best record in school history, and the program has not won an NCAA Tournament game since 1992.
Rutgers and Penn State
The cruelest ending to a season goes to the oft-maligned Rutgers Scarlet Knights, who waited 29 years to go back to the NCAA Tournament, and now they’ll have to wait longer. In their first five Big Ten seasons, the Scarlet Knights were 16-76 in conference play. They finally broke through with their first winning conference record since 1991, their last NCAA Tournament appearance.
Instead, their season ended when they were called off the court just a few minutes before tipping off against Michigan in their Big Ten Tournament opener. This year’s team finished sixth in adjusted defensive efficiency, and its overall final ranking (28th) was at least 46 spots higher than that of any Rutgers team since 2002.
Penn State had a similar, if less pronounced, renaissance this season. The Nittany Lions finished with a winning Big Ten record for the first time since 2008-09, and they had a good chance to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2001.