Can I get a smile, Leonard Hamilton?
Florida State's coach entered the year somewhat embattled and at least on the "warm seat" after last year's season once again failed to live up to many fans' expectations.
He finds himself a bit more comfortable after a solid start to the year, but life could still be a bit better for the Seminoles. Hamilton's young men seem to be a bubble team year after year, and 2008-09 is looking no different.
Florida State (16-4, 3-2 ACC) owns an impressive record but has only notched a few wins over quality teams (California and Florida; Cincinnati is not as impressive).
FSU led Pittsburgh late in the second half, but eventually fell 56-48 and also owns an eight-point loss to No. 1 Duke in a game that only became close after a furious Seminole second-half rally. FSU just lost a crucial conference game a week ago at rival Miami (FL).
The 'Noles did rebound nicely from that defeat in trashing Virginia, shooting a stellar 8 of 15 from behind the arc (53%).
Unfortunately, it's not going to be as easy tonight when Hamilton and the Seminoles host a resurgent North Carolina (17-2, 4-2 ACC) team fresh off the consecutive obliterations of Virginia and No. 10 Clemson. The No. 5 Tar Heels look to be returning to the form they exhibited in early season blowouts of Notre Dame and Michigan State.
Wayne Ellington has found his shooting touch for the Heels in the last two games, which spells trouble for any opponent hoping to collapse on Tyler Hansbrough as the focal point of their defense.
Florida State lacks the explosive point guard that has troubled Carolina in their two losses (Wake Forest's Jeff Teague and Boston College's Tyrese Rice), though senior PG Toney Douglas isn't exactly chopped liver. Still, FSU only hands out about 11 assists per game and no one other than Douglas averages double digits in scoring.
The Seminoles really can't afford to just launch three-pointers and hope that enough of them fall in order to defeat UNC. Their half-court sets have been atrocious at times (with poor passing), and the Heels are known for eating that up, just as they did in defeating Clemson.
The Seminoles turn the ball over about 17 times a game. If they want to compete with North Carolina, they'll need to virtually halve that number.
Still, the Tar Heels would be wise not to take Florida State for granted. There are no nights off in the ACC, as they painfully learned in their loss to Boston College. Here's three keys to victory for each team.
To win, Florida State must:
1. Shoot (and hit) from behind the arc, but adapt if the Heels play pressure defense.
Florida State shouldn't go away from their strength, which is clearly three-point shooting. But if the Heels start smothering the perimeter, Solomon Alabi and Chris Singleton need to see the ball. No hesitation; get it to them fast.
The Heels can be vulnerable to this attack, but only if quick decisions are made, not an ability that Florida State has demonstrated much this year.
2. Refuse to rely on Toney Douglas to score 30+ points.
In fact, if Douglas scores more than in the low 20s, I can almost guarantee Florida State will lose. When Douglas goes off, the rest of the 'Noles tend to stand around on offense and take snapshots, as their heads drift away like Mr. Mackey on acid.
Guess how many points Douglas had in the loss to Miami? Thirty. You betcha.
Florida State generally plays solid defense, but the offense can get quite stagnant.
3. Deny UNC the ability to set the pace of the game.
This is the tallest order for the 'Noles because when a team shoots a lot of threes, it is often vulnerable to UNC's fast-paced response. This is doubly true in Florida State's case as they have had trouble handling the ball. If this game even gets into the 80s, Florida State stands virtually no chance of winning.
It means racing back on defense, sharp, crisp, passing, staying alert, and only taking the right kind of three-point shot with people in proper position (not necessarily the first open shot available). Offensive boards, again the responsibility of Alabi and Singleton, can also greatly help blunt the Tar Heel fast break.
Guard Lawson with your feet, not your hands, or he will slice through you and lay it up before you can blink. Reduce Hansbrough's touches as much as possible. If you have to let North Carlina get the ball inside, let it go to Thompson, who has been slumping some of late. Stay in Ellington's face. Stay out of foul trouble.
Now for the Heels. To win, UNC must:
1. Play inside-out, not outside-in.
Part of being successful for North Carolina is a good start because they do not often play well from behind (especially in the second half). They tend to shoot from behind the arc in an attempt to make up ground.
When they win, it's because they feed Hansbrough and Thompson repeatedly inside, opening Green, Ellington and (lately) Lawson on the perimeter. It doesn't work in reverse, as Boston College and Wake Forest both demonstrated to UNC.
This point can be made in practically every single UNC preview, but it is especially true when facing a quality defensive squad such as Florida State. They may not have the defensive talent of Duke, but the 'Noles can match that intensity for extended periods of time.
2. Get better support from the bench.
The Heels need to realize that Zeller and Ginyard probably aren't coming back, and get on with it. It looked like nearly everyone ratcheted up their defensive intensity against Clemson and that is what will be needed every single game, with defensive specialist Ginyard inching closer and closer to a medical red-shirt.
Ed Davis has been solid; his shot-blocking presence is a nice compliment to Hansbrough and makes him a good substitute for Danny Green. Davis still has some issues to work through on the offensive end (his mid-range jumper especially), but providing offensive rebounds is a key.
Davis averages as many rebounds as Hansbrough (in less minutes) and four times as many blocks.
Larry Drew II needs to quit hemorrhaging turnovers when he is substituting at the point for Lawson. Drew has a 2.6:1.5 turnover-to-assist ratio, which is not horrible, but it has been closer to 1:1 in recent games, which is. Lawson, on the other hand, owns about a 7:2 ratio, and that is what Drew needs to aim for.
Will Graves mostly just needs to make better decisions. His defense is improving, but he still has the tendency to launch ill-advised three-pointers, despite shooting a horrendous .286 from that range. He turns the ball over far too often, usually a result of sloppy passing.
Playing about 12 minutes a game, Graves needs to understand his role and not try to do too much.
3. Play Pressure Defense.
FSU is already subject to turning the ball over, so North Carolina should force the issue and force turnovers. This is also one way to ensure Deon Thompson's head stays in the game. Lawson and Green especially excel in a pressure defense, and it helps compensate for some of Ellington's defensive weakness.
Florida State doesn't have the potent press-breaking weapons that Wake Forest and, to a lesser degree, Boston College possess, making the tactic especially effective against the 'Noles.
Press, run, and run some more. This forces the pace and can help get FSU in foul trouble. Serious foul trouble would likely be a death knell for the Seminoles, especially with the way that Hansbrough (.842), Lawson (.772), Green (.760), and Ellington (.830) convert their free throws.
On to the prediction...
I think Florida State does not match up well at all with North Carolina, who can truly eat up turnover-prone teams who rely on the three-point shot for pressure. Florida State plays better defense than most teams UNC has faced so far, but I can't see the Heels being held to the 60s or even the 70s.
Florida State will drop to .500 in league play and North Carolina will continue their resurgence, getting a nice ACC road win.
No. 5 North Carolina Tar Heels 88, Florida State Seminoles 72
Bonus prediction: Toney Douglas scores 28 points in a losing effort.
(Note: You can also read this and other UNC / NCAA articles on my UNC blog at Carolina Tar Heel Blue).