ACC victories don’t come easy.
Virginia’s schedule showed Boston College and Syracuse last week, and Virginia fans likely penciled in a pair of wins. Those games didn’t go as many suspected.
After two close losses, the road doesn’t become any friendlier for the Cavaliers (11-4, 3-2 ACC) as they travel to Florida State to face one of the conference’s hottest teams.
Leonard Hamilton’s team is surging. The Seminoles have won seven in a row, including a 13-point win at Louisville. Florida State (14-2, 4-1 ACC) beats teams with balance and athleticism.
Eight different FSU players average at least six points, and 16 of the 18 players listed on the team’s website are at least 6-foot-4. The Seminoles possess tremendous size and length, which allows them to defend at an elite level. They’re 18th nationally in defensive efficiency.
“They’re well-schooled in their defensive system,” Virginia head coach Tony Bennett said. “They play it with intensity. They’re a lot of like sizes, so they can switch, they can pressure the ball … it’s very aggressive with very good scheming.”
The athletic defense combined with a solid offense that features multiple scoring threats explains why the Seminoles are 14-2 with wins over Florida, Tennessee, Purdue and Louisville.
Despite being so sound both offensively and defensively, the ninth-ranked Seminoles aren’t overlooking a Virginia team that struggles to score.
“On the offensive end, they’ve always executed their offense to perfection,” Florida State head coach Leonard Hamilton said. “You can’t make a mistake because they’re consistent with how they look for each other and how they execute on the offensive end.”
Hamilton isn’t wrong. Virginia executes well offensively for stretches, and the Cavaliers find decent shots throughout each game. Unfortunately for Bennett’s team, they haven’t made those open looks with any sort of regularity. The Cavaliers rank near the bottom of the country in 3-point shooting, and they’ve only scored 60 points twice in their past 11 games.
Finding reasonable shots hasn’t been Virginia’s biggest issue; it’s been making those open looks.
On defense, the Cavaliers rank among the nation’s best in most metrics. The Seminoles recognize the defensive prowess of UVa, and Hamilton credits that for the team’s 3-2 mark against Virginia in the past five matchups.
“One of the reasons why we’ve given Virginia competitive games is the level of respect that our kids have for the great job that they do and from a coaching standpoint, the respect we have for them,” Hamilton said. “We know we have to be at our very best because their defensive system and schemes are so solid.”
Both teams play exceptional defense and possess good quickness and length defensively. Offensively, however, Florida State holds a clear edge. It’s a top-30 team in offensive efficiency, and Trent Forrest leads the way as a veteran guard.
The senior leads the team in minutes and assists, while ranking second on the team in scoring. He’s a player to watch, as he helps facilitate Hamilton’s attack.
While the Seminoles lean on a combination of upperclassmen and younger players to score, the Cavaliers are reliant on good performances from Kihei Clark, Mamadi Diakite and Braxton Key. When that trio is off, things go south.
The Cavaliers could use a younger player to help contribute offensively, but Diakite and the veterans believe a key to being competitive at Florida State is the upperclassmen performing at a higher level. It’s up to them to right the ship.
“If we play the same way we did today, it will not be good for us,” Diakite said after the Syracuse loss. “What I’m hearing from that is, we as players have to be coaches, we have to be leaders. The coaches can do whatever they can, but if at the end of the day the players are not stepping up and doing what they are supposed to do, it’s not going to happen.”