Florida State was in the midst of an identity crisis when it showed up Saturday for the Orange Bowl Basketball Classic. It had lost leading scorer Aaron Thomas for the season over an eligibility issue the week before, and it had yet to soar on the court — with or without him.
But in knocking off feisty South Florida, 75-62, the Seminoles might have found themselves.
The Noles equaled a school record with 15 blocked shots, six coming from sophomore forward Jarquez Smith.
“Right now, we’re trying to evolve,” FSU coach Leonard Hamilton said. “Where we end up, I really don’t know. We need our big guys to be more assertive like they were [Saturday].”
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The Seminoles boast three 7-footers in Michael Ojo, Boris Bojanovsky and Kiel Turpin.
Until Saturday though, the Seminoles hadn’t really flaunted their reach, blocking 32 shots in their first 10 games while going a mediocre 5-5.
That changed — and changed dramatically — at the BB&T Center.
The inexperienced Bulls, under first-year coach Orlando Antigua, tried to assert their edge in quickness, only to find that strategy thwarted by FSU’s inside game.
Whenever the Bulls drove into the paint to put up shots, the ball was often swatted back out. After a while, the intimidation factor had an unnerving effect on South Florida, which became more timid and more reluctant to challenge inside.
“We wanted to get some shots at the basket, and I think, early on, it might have intimidated some of us,” Antigua said. “Some of our guys started ball-faking instead of playing through the contact and finishing on the rim.”
FSU received huge boosts off the bench from Smith and Turpin.
Smith had 16 points to go with his half dozen blocks, while Turpin added 13 points and contributed two blocks.
Turpin missed all of last season while Smith did not play much as a freshman.
“I just wanted to come out and give the team energy,” Smith said.
“That’s not what I’ve been doing the past couple of games. I felt a chip on my shoulder, that I let the team down, so I felt like I had to come out and bring the team energy.”
If Saturday was any indication, both Smith and Turpin could evolve into major weapons for FSU.
Still, despite their size superiority, the Seminoles haven’t been flaunting it.
“We have not been very disruptive, and that’s been the challenge for our team,” Hamilton said.
“We have potential. But in order for us to be successful at this particular point, losing our leading scorer, we need to have the full sum of our parts, working in all those areas — deflections, steals, blocks, get to the foul line a little bit more.”
The Bulls, the second-most inexperienced team in the country, hung with Florida State and cut the lead to two points midway through the second half on a Corey Allen Jr. layup.
Allen led all scorers with 31 points, or exactly half of his team’s total output.
But Florida State pulled away in the late going.
“Hopefully, with a few more games under our belt, we’ll continue to find out who we are,” Hamilton said.
“Right now, we’re still evolving. Right now, we’re still growing. We’re a team that’s still kind of finding ourselves right now. We’re still a work in progress.”