Through the first half of the college basketball season, the ACC has stood alone as the nation's strongest league. In the most recent set of rankings, the conference held six of the 25 spots—the next closest league has four teams—and at the top of the league standings is No. 9 Florida State.
The Seminoles are a perfect 3-0 in ACC play, headlined by a win at then-No. 11 Virginia, and have just one loss thus far. Florida State head coach Leonard Hamilton has taken his team to the NCAA tournament's second weekend just once, but has arguably his most talented squad playing like a legitimate contender.
With Duke headed to Tallahassee, Fla., to take on the Seminoles Tuesday night, The Chronicle breaks down five things to know about the Seminoles as the ACC's two highest-ranked teams will face off in the first of two matchups this season.
For just the fourth time in Hamilton's tenure, a Florida State player was selected in the first round of the NBA Draft as the Denver Nuggets took Malik Beasley with the No. 19 overall pick last June. But sophomore guards Dwayne Bacon and Terrance Mann returned to school and have made for a formidable backcourt pairing.
Along with junior Xavier Rathan-Mayes, the Seminole starting backcourt is averaging a combined 37.7 points per game and has started all 16 games.
"[Florida State is] very good. I've been very impressed with them," Duke interim head coach Jeff Capel said during his weekly ACC teleconference Monday. "They are very talented and they are a very deep team. They wear you down."
Not only is the trio pouring in points, but they are also doing so at an efficient clip—each is shooting 46.7 percent or better from the field. And that does not even include one of the ACC's best freshmen, Jonathan Isaac. The versatile 6-foot-10 forward is putting up 12.2 points and 7.4 rebounds a night and is currently projected to be a potential top-10 choice in this summer's NBA Draft.
Bacon has been one of the best players in the country, averaging 18.1 points per contest thanks to a lethal mid-range game to go along with his 6-foot-7, 221-pound frame. The sophomore poured in 26 second-half points, including the game-winning 3-pointer, in the Seminoles' 60-58 Dec. 31 win at Virginia, and is a main reason a team that goes 11 deep will test Duke's defensive discipline early and often.
Elite rim protection
Like the Blue Devils, the Seminoles do not rely on their low-post players for significant scoring. Along with Isaac, though, they do have an experienced frontcourt duo that will challenge Duke on the glass with graduate student Michael Ojo and sophomore Christ Koumadje.
Neither the 7-foot-1 Ojo nor the 7-foot-4 Koumadje average more than 14 minutes per game, but have both appeared in every contest this season. Ojo made his presence known in Florida State's matchup with the Blue Devils two years ago, registering three blocks, and leads a Seminole defense that is holding opponents to just 68.8 points per game. With 40 rejections combined, the duo will have the opportunity to control the paint against a Duke side that will be playing without graduate student forward Amile Jefferson, who suffered a right-foot bone bruise Saturday against Boston College.
Not so tough in Tallahassee
The Blue Devils have won five of their last six matchups on the road against Florida State, and although the Seminoles are a perfect 11-0 at home this season, they lost six times at the Donald L. Tucker Civic Center last season. If Florida State hopes to keep its clean slate at home, it will have to knock off a top-10 team at home for the first time since wins against then-No. 3 North Carolina and then-No. 4 Duke in 2012.
"Tallahassee is usually a tough place to play," Capel said. "But it's even tougher when they're very good.... It'll be a big challenge for us."
The Seminoles' current No. 9 ranking is the program's highest regular-season mark since the 1992-93 season, when Florida State was ranked as high as sixth, which came in late February.
As deep as anyone
Hamilton has utilized a number of different combinations through the Seminoles' hot start. Florida State's roster features 11 players that average double-figure minutes per game, and Hamilton typically plays a nine or 10-man rotation on any given night.
"I never go into a game looking for combinations," Hamilton said on the teleconference Monday. "We feel that we've played enough combinations in practice where it doesn't matter who is on the floor—they can all play together."
The Seminoles are not a particularly dangerous 3-point shooting team, but they will use their tenacious defense to set up an equally aggressive offense that can score in transition—which has proven to be Duke's main weakness on defense so far this season.
A brutal stretch
Florida State is currently in the midst of six straight games against top-25 opposition, a stretch that started on New Year's Eve against the Cavaliers and won't get any easier with a road contest at No. 11 North Carolina Saturday. The Seminoles will then host No. 20 Notre Dame and No. 14 Louisville next week.
"We know this is a very challenging period of our schedule and that we're going to have to be at our very best in order to be successful," Hamilton said. "I'm sure we'll have some challenges."
Florida State is normally not thought of as a traditional ACC power, but if the Seminoles continue holding their own against ranked conference foes, they should have a chance to match or even top their landmark 2011-12 team's mark of six top-25 ACC wins—the most since Florida State joined the league in 1991.