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UCF Hoops vs. #15 Florida State: Preview Q&A with Tomahawk Nation’s Austin Cox

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NCAA Basketball: Central Florida at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

The UCF Knights travel to Tallahassee to take on the 15th-ranked Florida State Seminoles on Saturday night at 9 p.m. on ACC Network. The Knights (1-1) have not played since December 6th at Michigan, where they lost 80-58. UCF was scheduled to play at No. 7 Houston this past Tuesday night, but the game got rescheduled due to the Cougars having COVID issues.

The Seminoles come in 4-0, ranked 15th in the nation, and coming off a win against Georgia Tech on Tuesday night in their ACC opener. The Seminoles are led by freshman phenom Scottie Barnes who is projected to be an NBA Draft Lottery pick and is averaging 12.5 points per game. Senior M.J. Walker leads the 'Noles in scoring, averaging 16 points per game.

I did a two-part Q-and-A series with Tomahawk Nation’s Austin Cox to learn more about FSU, and in return I answered his questions about UCF on Tomahawk Nation. In the second part next week, we will talk about McKenzie Milton’s transfer to Florida State.

But here is my chat with Cox about the Seminoles’ basketball team:


Eric Lopez, Black & Gold Banneret: What has stood out to you about the Seminoles so far in 2020-21?

Austin Cox, Tomahawk Nation: The short answer is Scottie Barnes, but really the biggest thing that has stood out is the continuation of a few impressive trends despite plenty of roster turnover. FSU is red-hot the past few years in closely-decided games but especially overtime games. The ‘Noles have won 10-straight overtime games, which is approaching a record.

They also continue to see huge progress from role players from one year to the next. Players like RaiQuan Gray or Anthony Polite show up with every facet of their game improved and ready to take on an expanded role. This has been the case year after year for FSU recently; the in-house player development from head coach Leonard Hamilton’s staff is exceptional.

E-Lo: You lost two Lottery picks from last year’s team that won the ACC regular season title and finished 4th in the country when the season was shut down in Devin Vassell and Patrick Williams, as well as standout Trent Forrest. How have the ‘Noles replaced those talented guys?

Austin: Forrest was one of the most beloved players in school history, and Vassell and Williams were two of the most talented ‘Noles in recent memory. All three will be remembered very fondly, especially with the season FSU had last year.

But as far as 2020-21 is concerned, Florida State has completely reloaded at all three spots. Scottie Barnes has stepped in at the point and brought the type of two-way play-making and defensive effort Forrest always had to his game.

I would say the biggest strength from either of the three the Seminoles are missing right now is the crunch-time scoring from Forrest and Vassell. Barnes has been very clutch late in games so far, but it will be a collective effort throughout the whole team to replace Vassell’s outside shooting and Forrest’s reliable experience in those moments.

E-Lo: What is the strength of this year’s version of the ‘Noles?

Austin: This is a traditional FSU team under Hamilton. They are long at all five spots and stout defensively. FSU likes to get out in transition offensively. In the past two games against Florida and Georgia Tech, they are shooting just a shade under 50% from three.

Once again this season, Florida State has a balanced starting five and a deep bench. Unlike other teams with a one-and-done player like Scottie Barnes, FSU isn’t too reliant on their freshman star.

E-Lo: Scottie Barnes is a projected lottery pick. What has been your thoughts on him and how does the program and fans see him compared to other ‘Nole greats like Jonathan Isaac, Vassell and Williams, who are recent lottery picks?

Austin: Scottie came in with probably the biggest hype of any player in FSU basketball history, and through four games he has delivered. Five points in the overtime win versus Indiana. 15 of his 16 in the second half against Georgia Tech. 17 points and five dimes in the rivalry win over Florida. And massive dunks so far in every game.

He is a highlight reel waiting to happen. He is an unselfish player who thrives in play-making situations with the ball in his hands.

To anyone who hasn’t seen him yet, his skills and his incredible size and athleticism will stand out immediately. I know this sounds like a lot of hyperbole, but the kid really is the total package.

E-Lo: M.J. Walker is your leading scorer, averaging 16 points per game. Describe his game.

Austin: M.J. Walker has been a joy to watch for FSU fans for four years now. If a full season is played this year, he likely will become FSU’s all-time winningest player in program history. Walker has a classic two-guard’s game. Can penetrate and shoots well from mid-range and three-point. Great perimeter defender.

He is efficient, understands his own game, and stays within himself. He can get hot and easily score three or four baskets very quickly. He is a perfect example of a senior who played all four years and got better every season. Also, he has gelled well with Barnes so far in my opinion.

E-Lo: Over the last five years, the program has taken it to a different level with three straight NCAA Tournament appearances, an Elite 8 and Sweet 16 appearance, and they were a national title contender last year had the Tournament been played. What has been the key to success for Leonard Hamilton?

NCAA Basketball: Boston College at Florida State
Leonard Hamilton led Florida State to program’s 1st ever ACC regular season championship last season and finished 4th in final rankings in 2020 season.
Glenn Beil-USA TODAY Sports

Austin: There have definitely been numerous factors that have led to Florida State’s great run the past few years. One of the biggest reasons Leonard Hamilton has had so much success in his career is his belief and trust in his system and the ability to get his players to believe in his system as well. Hamilton does things the right way and his players have always responded to him.

But I think it all has come down to the huge leap in recruiting the ‘Noles have taken the past five years.

E-Lo: Do the fans appreciate the basketball program more now, especially with football’s struggles recently?

Austin: I would say so. It is fairly strange how closely the fall of the football program and the rise of the basketball program coincided. It is definitely unusual for FSU fans.

E-Lo: FSU went up against Darius Perry when Perry was starting at Louisville. Once he joins the Knights team, what can UCF fans expect from him based on what you saw from him when Louisville played Florida State the previous years?

Austin: Florida State and Louisville really went at it last year in their home-and-home series; both games were very high-caliber. Some of the highest level of play in college basketball last season. Perry missed all five of his interior shots but hit two three-point jumpers for six points in the first meeting. I think Louisville tightened their rotation the second game in the Civic Center, and he only played a few minutes. I wish I could have gotten a better look at him in person.

I will say that although FSU beat Louisville both times last year, the Cardinals were loaded and were a tough matchup for FSU, so any transfer from their roster is a good move. Especially with the outside shooting of Perry.

E-Lo: Head Coach Johnny Dawkins said this week that this matchup could turn into a three-game series with the two teams possibly playing at the Orange Bowl Classic next year, where they were supposed to play, and possibly at UCF the following year. Do you like the possibility of these two programs playing every year like they do in Baseball, Softball, etc.?

Austin: I love it. I think that is a great idea. I think it is always great in college athletics for in-state schools to meet up as frequently as possible. UCF has fantastic facilities, especially their basketball arena.

E-Lo: What is biggest question you have about Florida State moving forward?

Austin: The biggest thing Leonard Hamilton has mentioned in press conferences is that FSU still is learning how to play with each other. They did have a decent amount of turnover from last year. Hamilton has called them still “a work in progress.”

But there is a lot to be pleased with in Tallahassee. I think Barnes has answered some of the crunch-time concerns for the team as a whole after the graduation of Forrest (who was unbelievably clutch in key moments). I think Florida State can win the ACC again.