The Gonzaga Bulldogs are taking on the Florida State Seminoles for only the second time in school history.
The last time these two schools faced off was in the 2010 NCAA Tournament. A then No. 8 Gonzaga beat a once again No. 9 Florida State in a fashion that would be fitting for this tournament. The Zags led by 18, and Florida State cut that to four before Gonzaga eventually put the breaks on, winning 67-60.
Since there is a very good chance that many of us haven’t seen Florida State play this year, recently, or at all, we spoke with the very nice Michael Rogner at Tomahawk Nation to give us the low down on FSU.
TSSF: Just assume that your average Gonzaga fan doesn’t pay much attention to ACC basketball. Who are the major players on this squad that the Zag fans need be aware of?
TN: Well, it really depends on the night. The fun thing about FSU’s system is that the go-to guy is the one that’s open. When FSU goes small (which is often for the entire 2nd half) all five guys can run the break, and they’re relentless playing downhill. If Gonzaga can turn this into a halfcourt game (in which case, they’ll win) then Braian Angola and PJ Savoy are the 3-point threats, while Terance Mann and Trent Forrest are the guys who can really break down a defense. Phil Cofer is a 6-8 stretch-4 who can do a little bit of everything. FSU has two 7-footers, but they’re both projects and don’t bring much to the table on offense.
On defense, if FSU is able to get any pressure on the Zags ballhandlers, then Angola and/or Forrest are likely to be at the center of the action.
TSSF: Florida State runs a deep bench, especially for the NCAA Tournament. With so many guys contributing, who do you expect to be the end of regulation player if the game stays close?
TN: The depth has pretty much been a myth. Coach Hamilton’s version of depth is last year’s team that had 11 guys playing double-digit minutes, and another two very close to double digits. In a perfect world he’s running hockey line shifts every four minutes to wear the other team down. But announcers are always behind the times, so they keep referring to FSU as a defense-first, deep team. This year’s squad was basically down to 10 scholarship players from the get go. Then Christ Koumadje and PJ Savoy both missed extended time. And Trent Forrest, PJ Savoy, CJ Walker, and Terance Mann have all battled through long stretches playing hurt.
Luckily, everyone is good to go for the Tourney - though a few are still playing through injuries. The end-game is typically five guys who can all switch screens across the board, so it’s like a mid-sized, quick team. You’ll see Terance Mann, Trent Forrest, Braian Angola, Phil Cofer, and then a mix of the other players.
TSSF: You can’t be a No. 9 seed and just accidentally waltz into the Sweet 16. What was the game plan going in to the game against Xavier?
TN: Shut down Trevon Bluiett. Back when Florida State put top-10 defenses on the floor annually, Coach Hamilton had a knack for shutting down a team’s best player. FSU’s defense has been pretty bad this year, but against Xavier they completely took Bluiett out of the game. FSU switches almost everything, so no one player was responsible. But they played an extreme deny wherever he went on the court, and he hardly even got touches.
Offensively, it was the typical downhill attack. And then late in the game Xavier tried to go 1-3-1 zone, and FSU just completely dismantled it, scoring on six of seven possessions to tie the game after being down nine points late in the 2nd half. It was fun to watch.
TSSF: What issues do you see matching up against Gonzaga? Also, on the flip side, which FSU players will the Zags have issues handling on a regular basis?
TN: Gonzaga’s offense is going to wreck shop. Their balance makes them tremendously difficult to guard. FSU overplays everything on the interior, relying on their length and athleticism to get back and cover the three. But if the timing is off, then teams that can drive and kick can just light the ‘Noles up. Florida State did throw a couple different zone looks at Xavier, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the Seminoles do that again on Thursday.
In the final month of the season, Trent Forrest has been the most impressive player for Florida State. He’s super disruptive on defense. He’s got a crossover that has dropped several defenders this year. And he’s great at finishing through contact. Everyone in the building knows he’s not shooting when he’s on the perimeter, but teams still haven’t been able to keep him from getting to the rim.
TSSF: The interior defense looks top notch, but it also looks like opponents have burnt Florida State from long range. Gonzaga has a couple of players who really like to shoot threes. How do you see FSU trying to apply pressure on that defensive end?
TN: Ummm, hopes and prayers. Really, we just have to hope that the switches are on point. Florida State switches defenders in live action about as much as you’ll see any team in basketball do. When it works, it’s beautiful, because no one is ever open. But when all five players aren’t on the same page, it can lead to some completely uncovered shooters.
The other key is limiting the Zags transition opportunities. FSU’s defense has gone through stretches late in the season where you can see the light coming on, especially in half court sets. They’re getting better at applying pressure, and better at recovering when the pressure doesn’t work. But the transition defense is still a few steps behind. Basically, I think that’s what this game comes down to. Whoever can force the other team to operate most often in half court sets is the one that will be moving on to the Elite 8.
TSSF: We can all agree this has been a nutty March Madness for the ages. Personally, what has been your favorite game to watch? (can be a FSU one or not)
TN: Outside of Florida State, I would say UVA-UMBC, but I didn’t actually get to see more than a few possessions because FSU was playing at the same time. The Houston - San Diego State game was fantastic. Nevada’s games were nuts. But I’ll take Loyola Chicago over Miami (of FL). This was the year for our bitter rival, the Miami Hurricanes. They were LOADED, with three 5*s on the roster, plus they had nice mix of experience and youth. And they got bounced by an 11-seed. With the FBI in town, it’s going to be a long time until they have another roster like this one.
But the truth is that the Xavier - Florida State game was one of my favorites in memory. It was just a good basketball game. It was great entertainment from start to finish, and the last six minutes were as much fun as I’ve had watching basketball since FSU beat North Carolina for their only ACC Title.