For the first time all season, the Seminoles on Thursday night got meaningful minutes in the opening round of the ACC Tournament from the lineup that was intended to be its best and most trusted all along this season.
After a preseason injury, guard Ian Miller has been playing through pain all year. It hasn't been until the last month or so that he's actually been performing his best despite the discomfort. While he was coming around, Terrance Shannon, the Seminoles' backup junior forward went down with a neck injury that sidelined him for nearly two months. On Thursday, he played his most minutes since January.
It was a glimpse of what could have been. Some could argue that with a win over North Carolina in Friday night's tournament quarterfinal, it may have been a glimpse of what could be the rest of this postseason.
We're joined in Greensboro this week by our trusted Orlando Sentinel backup, Brendan Bures. Mr. Bures has the following look at the return of the "Big Four." Take a look at this solid read.
By Brendan Bures
Orlando Sentinel correspondent
GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Forget leaping, he flat-out flew through the air, careening toward a violent collision between the basket and the ball in his hand. Like the explosion he was about to set off inside the Greensboro Coliseum, Terrance Shannon was a veritable bomb, diving toward the rim with reckless regard for the defender who tried to stop him.
It was a moment he had not had in quite some time; almost like he forgot he could pull off such a feat. But there he was, soaring while seemingly every person in the stands held their breath, waiting for the boom.
A slight miscalculation on Shannon’s part instead caused the ball to ricochet toward the rafters instead of through the hoop, but the success of the attempted dunk didn’t matter much. Not to this FSU team, and not at this time.
It was the act itself that mattered. It was the fact that a Seminoles player was capable of creating that much electricity and energy for his team. It was just that type of spark that FSU had been missing while toiling through its ACC schedule without Shannon.
"That’s the guy we've been looking for all year," assistant coach Stan Jones said. "He's got to be the most snake-bit guy of all-time, at least in our program. The number of injuries in four years that he’s gone through — not just the big ones that’s obvious, but he’s had a lot of little knick-knack injuries over his career that have stymied his growth a little bit."
Before the season began, some of the Seminoles gathered for player meetings to strategize a plan to defend their ACC title. According to junior Okaro White, they want to create a "Big Four;" their version of the Miami Heat's "Big Three" of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. For the Seminoles, the "Big Four" would consist of veterans Michael Snaer, Ian Miller, White and Shannon. Those four would form the team's core and together would support and boost the seven first-time players who joined the team.
As FSU fans know, things didn’t work out that way. Miller suffered a foot injury that hasn’t healed as he continues to play through the pain. Shannon injured his neck, causing a physical and mental setback. The foundation of FSU’s season was in shambles.
"I did feel, though, that that core of guys would be able to give us the leadership, set the example in practice, the conversation upperclassmen normally give to the incoming newcomers to kind of set the tone," head coach Leonard Hamilton said. "And we've been void of that because Terrance had a couple of injuries and Ian's been riding the bicycle and shooting free throws in practice. It's kind of hard to be a leader when you're not actively participating."
The leadership burden, previously shared by four, fell primarily on White's and Snaer's shoulders. At times, it worked. Just ask any of the four ACC teams who were Snaer’d this season by one of his patented game-winners. But sometimes, the load has been too much for the pair as inefficiencies crept into both of their games.
When defending, as Hamilton explains it, a players wants to "mirror" his opponent's actions; give them a little space to operate, but not to move. A defender wants his defender to make the mistake, not to enforce it. White struggled staying on the court at times this season because he kept getting fouls while trying to create a spark on the defensive end, a role usually provided by Shannon.
"He has a tendency to initiate action when, in reality, he should just be solid fundamentally," Hamilton said earlier this season about White's defense. "Get his hands up instead of reaching, grabbing, slapping trying to knock the ball out of people’s hands. You don’t take the ball from really good players, you get a deflection."
In similar respects, Snaer, might have a poor shooting night where he goes 5-for-18 for example because he’s trying to shoot FSU back into a game it's losing because of its lacking experience. With Miller's minimized scoring and distributing role, he was often asked to do more.
Against Clemson in the ACC Tournament on Thursday, though, those mistakes faded away, and the four were able to lean on each other the way they initially planned before the season.
"It felt good just having all those guys on the court because that’s actually what we wanted to have during the course of the season," Snaer said. "It’s harder for guys to plan their defense to basically to keep me from getting the ball and keep me from getting in the lane. Now, we got our veteran lineup on the floor, we correct our mismatches. We can get the ball to Okaro in the post, they can’t try and double, or Terrance is going to get in and dunk on somebody."
Being back on the court was special for Shannon as he constantly questioned during his time away if he’d be back, if at all. To share that moment with the rest of the "Big Four" in an opening-round tournament win meant quite a bit to the big man.
"It was a blessing, with all I’ve been through," Shannon said. "Going through the point where I didn’t know if I was ever gonna play again, if I was gonna play this season. It was pretty good for me."
When considering how cohesive the team looked with the core reestablished, it’s hard not to question just how good FSU could’ve been with a healthy Miller and Shannon. With so many new players joining the team this season, the question is difficult to answer.
But with the "Big Four" now leading the way, and newcomers like Devon Bookert and Montay Brandon providing valuable backup minutes, FSU believes it might just make a run at winning a second straight ACC Tournament.
"That’s kind of what we needed from Day One and we weren’t able to get it," Jones said. "Our guys have really started to come together here the last two weeks of the season. Our learning curve, we’ve finally gotten to the end of it. If we can just hold together here, and keep our positivity right, and everyone play off each other, who knows what can happen."