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What Florida State continues to show while Malik Osborne nurses his nagging left ankle injury offers a glowing indication of what could come this season and beyond.
The setback Osborne suffered earlier this month left the Seminoles vulnerable after they started ACC play. They were already struggling before Osborne’s injury occurred. And the versatility, defense, scoring and rebounding Osborne brings makes the senior forward one of FSU’s most valuable players.
But while Osborne intermittently missed time and played limited physically, the Seminoles started winning.
FSU (13-5, 6-2 ACC) could extend its winning streak at last-place Georgia Tech (8-10, 1-6) Wednesday at 9 p.m. on the ACC Network.
“These guys know what it takes to win now,” Osborne said.
“They know how to take adversity, get hit and still stand and push through. But also the level of confidence, they are not scared of the environment anymore. They are not scared of the moment. These guys are going out there, and they are attacking it. They are embracing the moment.”
Playing at this level required the Seminoles to overcome the growing pains that plagued them earlier this season. Recovering from the departures of Scottie Barnes, Balsa Koprivica, M.J. Walker and RaiQuan Gray has been an ongoing process.
Especially after head coach Leonard Hamilton replaced them with mostly transfers and freshmen.
“I don’t know what our ceiling is, because I don’t feel like we’ve gotten there,” Hamilton said.
“I do feel like we are still in a learning mode. We showed that Saturday when Miami started scrambling and pressuring us, and doubling us in the halfcourt. We still have a lot of room to grow. So hopefully we will continue to keep putting them in those situations, and we will be more comfortable as we move on.”
FSU adjusts to challenges
The notion that FSU has yet to reach its potential makes sense. From an inexperienced roster to Osborne’s physical limitations, the Seminoles needed to adjust. Osborne said he does not expect them to reach their ceiling until the end of the regular season.
Having room to improve while topping the ACC standings is quite the flex. But the margin for error could be thin. FSU won seven of its last eight games by single digits, and four of its last five by five points or fewer.
How Osborne performs going forward will be worth monitoring. He ranks third on the team in scoring (10.4 PPG) but has shot 7-of-38 (18.4 percent) from the field since the N.C. State game.
It’s also possible that Osborne never returns to 100 percent this season.
“With my ankle, it’s something that will probably be dealt with for the rest of the season,” Osborne said. “It’s that type of injury. The team has been really good about trying to load manage it. The training staff has been giving me treatment pretty much every day. I’ve pretty much been living in the training room ever since the injury happened.
“I’ve been trying to figure out what is going to keep me in the best possible shape and health as possible going into each game.”
For precautionary reasons, Osborne rarely practices. Not practicing does not mean Osborne disengages, though. He knows he can still contribute through leadership – a quality the inexperienced Seminoles need if they want to continue their hot streak.
“I know for some people, injuries can be hard,” Osborne said. “A lot of people revert back into a shell. And as a leader of the team, I know I can’t do that. I have to still use my voice, still use my presence. That’s something I can do to help guide my team to win and be successful, whether I’m on or off the court.”
Living up to the hype
To ensure FSU’s closer games going forward don’t turn into losses, younger players like Matthew Cleveland will need to continue to step up.
The 6-foot-7, 200-pound Cleveland has impressed after coming to campus with lofty expectations. He ranks second on the team with 10.8 PPG and has recorded double figures in nine games.
“Matthew is farther along than most guys we’ve had who are first-year players,” Hamilton said. “He’s extremely competitive. He’s very confident. He knows how to play within who he is and his abilities. He plays with a tremendous amount of effort.
“He’s a great defender, and sometimes that’s not what freshmen do when they come in. They come in with that type of high basketball I.Q. and high motor, and he’s willing to do whatever it takes for his team to win.
“He’s a team guy. He’s a guy who’s growing with each game. And I think he’s going to get better and better as we go through the remainder of the season.”
While FSU managed to succeed despite its influx of fresh faces, Georgia Tech struggled to reload after last year.
The Yellow Jackets wilted after losing 2020-21 ACC Player of the Year Moses Wright and ACC Defensive Player of the Year Jose Alvarado. Following a 5-1 start, Georgia Tech has lost nine of its 12 games since.
Last season, Wright and Alvarado gave the Seminoles all they could handle. They defeated FSU twice – once in the regular season (76-65) and the other in the ACC Championship (80-75).
“From that (ACC Championship) game, we saw a team that honestly, at that point, wanted it more,” Osborne said. “They played with a lot of heart. They played with a lot of fight. That was a learning experience not just for myself, but a lot of the returnees who have been on the team.
“They understand what type of pain that was, and we are already in agreement that we don’t want to go back to that. So we know what it takes. We know what level of focus it takes. What type of effort it takes.
“Going up to Georgia Tech, we want to show that we learned from our mistakes. And we want to prove that we are still that top tier team regardless of the success we had prior. We want to show that we are still locked in and hunting for that ACC Championship. We are looking to redeem ourselves from last year.”
FSU at Georgia Tech
When/Where: Wednesday, 9 p.m., McCamish Pavilion, Atlanta
TV/Radio: ACC Network (Comcast 1325 HD) /101.5 FM
This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: FSU men's basketball looks to improve even while atop ACC standings