FSU men's basketball team prepares for season amid off-court uncertainty
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FSU men's basketball team preparing for season unlike any other

They don't know when the season will officially start. They don't even know exactly who they'll be playing.

It doesn't matter. The Florida State men's basketball team is practicing like the Florida State men's basketball team always practices.

"Obviously, corona is going on, but when we're in that gym we're locked in," said senior shooting guard M.J. Walker. "We have the same energy. And we're trying to increase the energy every day. The intensity is always there."

Said FSU head coach Leonard Hamilton: "There ain't no let-up. We don't roll that way. That's not part of our culture, or our DNA. We don't have to coach effort. Our culture is what it is. ... They still respond appropriately, and they're holding each other accountable."

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M.J. Walker will be a senior leader for the FSU men's basketball team this season.
M.J. Walker will be a senior leader for the FSU men's basketball team this season. (Gene Williams/Warchant)

With COVID-19 still dominating the sports landscape, the 2020-2021 college basketball season is still full of unanswered questions: How many games will be played? Who will be in the stands? What happens if a player tests positive? What will March Madness look like?

What will the home-court advantage be for a Florida State team that has won 23 straight games in the Civic Center and 62 of its last 65?

The Seminoles, of course, don't have official answers to any of these yet -- the schedule and COVID protocols will be announced in the coming days. But they do know there will be a season. And for Walker, that's all that matters right now.

"We know that we're playing, so that's the momentum we're pushing off of," Walker said. "We know that we're playing, and we're just taking advantage of the practices we have."

Walker said he and his teammates have reminded each other to be diligent when they're away from the court. They have created as much of a bubble as possible, with strict orders amongst themselves to not go into crowded parties or restaurants.

They're getting tested consistently during the preseason. And if they want the season to go off without a hitch, they need to do anything they can to keep COVID out of their locker room.

"We're just disciplining ourselves," Walker said. "Any time we go somewhere, we have to have our mask on. And make sure it's us in a sense. Pretty much, the way our days are set up, we go to the gym and when we go home there's no going out unless you're getting food. And if you're getting food, make sure it's drive-thru or something like that. Or if you're sitting down somewhere, make sure it's away (from people) and not crowded.

"Just to make sure we're safe at all times ... The only fun we're having is on the court right now."

Said head coach Leonard Hamilton: "We're tested regularly. We're trying to stay in our own mythical bubble, where we're doing the things that we think keep us safe."

As for the team itself, well, there are some holes to fill off last year's ACC championship squad.

Gone are Devin Vassell, Patrick Williams and Trent Forrest. The first two are potential lottery picks in next month's NBA Draft. The last is the all-time leader in wins (104 total) at Florida State and the backbone of last year's team, which was the best of the Leonard Hamilton Era and maybe the best in school history.

"We're still fine-tuning ourselves," Hamilton said. "We're adjusting to the experience we lost. ... We're trying to gain confidence in everyone's new roles. We're definitely practicing like we've only been in practice for two weeks."

Walker likes what he's seen so far from newcomers like Scottie Barnes, a five-star recruit, and sharp-shooter Sardaar Calhoun, who was considered one of the best junior college players in the United States.

"Scottie's athletic ability, his IQ for the game, is beyond his age," Walker said. "He's 6-7, got a 7-2 wing span, long as I don't know what. Athletic. But his IQ is on the floor is what is separating him. We're continuing to watch film with him and making sure he's sharp when it's time to play. But he's a talent, man. I'm not going to lie to you.

"He's got to continue to get better, obviously. It's no gimme. But we're pushing him in practice, and his energy on the floor is contagious."

Walker said he and other veterans like RaiQuan Gray are trying to teach the first-year guys as much as they can as quickly as they can.

And it should come as no surprise that Walker has taken such an interest in the development of guys like Barnes and Calhoun, even though they could end up taking minutes away from him once the season starts.

Because it's Florida State. That's the culture. Players don't worry about minutes and they won't worry about points. They worry about winning. And doing whatever it takes to reach that goal.

"They have a history to fall back on," Hamilton said. "To utilize what they've learned in the past, that if everybody just does their part, opportunities will be made available. ... Our system is what it is, and if you play well in it, good things are going to happen for you."

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