Why depth has been the key to Florida State's stunning Elite Eight run

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LOS ANGELES — When Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton visits with a prospect and his family, his recruiting pitch strikes a different tone than his peers at other schools.

He admits right away that his best players don’t log as many minutes as they do elsewhere in the ACC.

Whereas most high-major college basketball coaches trust only their top six or seven players by the time the calendar turns to March, Hamilton favors a rotation that goes 10 or 11 deep.

Ten or more Florida State players have averaged at least 10 minutes per game each of the past three seasons, enabling them to expend maximum energy on defense and play at a breakneck pace. No Seminoles, not even eventual NBA draft picks Jonathan Isaac, Dwayne Bacon or Malik Beasley, averaged 30 minutes.

“When [Hamilton] recruits kids, he’s honest and he doesn’t make promises he doesn’t keep,” Florida State associate head coach Stan Jones said. “He says, ‘If you can help us win, you’re going to play. We’re going to give you a role. We’re going to build a role for you.’ That’s why you don’t see our kids have quitting problems, transfer problems. Coach tells them what they’re going to do and he does what he says. It’s been good to us.”

Never has Hamilton’s approach been better to Florida State than in this year’s NCAA tournament. The ninth-seeded Seminoles have advanced to the Elite Eight for the first time in a quarter century by wearing down opponents with waves of length, athleticism and depth.

They unleashed a 14-0 surge late in their opening-round win over Missouri to quash the Tigers’ comeback hopes. They erased a 12-point deficit in the final 10 minutes against top-seeded Xavier in the second round to avenge an NCAA tournament loss to the Musketeers the previous year. And they put away Gonzaga with a 16-6 finishing kick on Thursday night to earn a date with third-seeded Michigan in Saturday night’s West Regional final.

Three different players have led Florida State in scoring in each of those games — freshman forward Mfiondu Kabengele against Missouri (14 points), senior guard Braian Angola against Xavier (15 points) and junior guard Terance Mann against Gonzaga (18 points). In each game, the Seminoles have witnessed signs of fatigue in their opponents down the stretch.

“In the first, the other team has a lot of energy, the way they run the floor and the way they crash the glass,” Kabengele said. “In the second half, you kind of see them getting more patient rather than trying to get up and down the floor. The bigs are not as aggressive crashing the glass. The energy and the defensive principles are not the same as what we’re used to seeing on film. A lot of times, we’re able to capitalize on that.

Florida State guard Terance Mann (14) celebrates after scoring against Gonzaga during the second half of an NCAA men’s college basketball tournament regional semifinal Thursday, March 22, 2018, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae Hong)
Florida State guard Terance Mann (14) celebrates after scoring against Gonzaga during the second half of an NCAA men’s college basketball tournament regional semifinal Thursday, March 22, 2018, in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Jae Hong)

Hamilton’s approach was born out of necessity as much as choice.

When he attempted to drag Miami from the bottom of the Big East to the top in the 1990s, he knew he couldn’t land the same caliber of talent as the league’s upper-crust programs. He believed his only hope was to counter the star power at Georgetown, Syracuse and UConn by assembling deeper rosters and keeping his players fresher.

“I felt that that was the best way for me to compete with the tradition-rich programs that are always loaded with some of the top players in the country,” Hamilton said. “I just felt that it would be important for me to not worry about competing with the top five or six players, but let’s try to get a team of guys that would allow themselves to win by committee.

“We feel that we can compete a lot better if we have more guys to share the load where we don’t put all that responsibility on one or two particular players. It’s been working for us for a number of years.”

That philosophy helped Hamilton take success-starved Miami to three straight NCAA tournaments in the late 1990s. It also propelled long-struggling Florida State to 10 seasons of 20 or more wins and six NCAA tournament bids in Hamilton’s 16 years in Tallahassee.

In recent years, Hamilton has come up with the motto “18 strong,” had it printed on T-shirts and used it as part of his recruiting pitch. It’s sometimes an adjustment for decorated high school players accustomed to seldom coming out of games, but the universal buy-in on Florida State’s roster is proof the approach is working.

The Seminoles embrace the fact that Hamilton will ride a hot hand each night and seldom bicker about stats or playing time. Only seldom-used Benji Bell has transferred from Florida State in the past three seasons.

“Playing 11 people allows us to play as hard as we can, get a break and come back and do the same thing again.” guard CJ Walker said. “Coming from high school when you’re used to being the man and taking whatever shots you want to it can be tough, but you get over it because it’s better for the team. We all just want to win at the end of the day.”

Hamilton’s 18-strong approach is an especially good fit for this year’s roster because Florida State doesn’t have as much individual talent as it has in recent years.

Having lost leading scorers Dwayne Bacon, Jonathan Isaac and Xavier Rathan-Mayes from last season’s 26-win team, Florida State entered the season projected to finish eighth in the ACC. That proved pretty much spot-on as the Seminoles interspersed marquee wins and head-scratching losses during league play en route to a 9-9 record and then dropped their first-round ACC tournament game to desperate Louisville.

Reemphasizing defense and fundamentals between the ACC and NCAA tournaments helped spark a Florida State turnaround. Now the Seminoles are back to playing aggressive, swarming defense, turning turnovers into transition baskets and relentlessly attacking the rim off the bounce.

Never has Florida State’s remarkable depth been more apparent than in the closing minute of Thursday night’s first half.

Hamilton inserted senior forward Brandon Allen, who scored a mere seven points during the entirety of ACC play. Allen responded with a basket just before the halftime buzzer to cap an 11-1 Florida State run that gave the Seminoles a nine-point lead going into the break.

“The way we play helps build camaraderie,” Jones said. “If you’ve been around our kids, there are not any cliques or anything. From the walk-ons, to the older players, to whether your white or black, they all hang out and like each other’s company. That comes from what Coach does in terms of how he uses his players.”

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Jeff Eisenberg is a college basketball writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at daggerblog@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!