The Gonzaga Bulldogs get their chance at revenge on Thursday night when they take on the Florida State Seminoles in the Sweet 16. The Zags had two relatively easy games to get there, while FSU had to fend off a pesky Vermont team in the first round before dismantling Murray State. Of course, last season, these two teams met in Los Angeles, with Florida State coming out on top 75-60. This year, they meet in Anaheim with a fully healthy Gonzaga squad looking to make their third Elite Eight in five years.
The final practice before taking off to Southern California, Killian Tillie suffered a very awkward hip injury. He tried to warm up and give it a go, but to no avail. Without him, Gonzaga had no floor spacer and no depth. Florida State used 12 players to wear down the Zags. They packed the paint, made Johnathan Williams and Rui Hachimura uncomfortable, and forced the guards to beat them.
With that said, Gonzaga actually led the game late in the first half. But because of foul trouble to Williams and Hachimura, Mark Few elected to use Jacob Larsen for the final three minutes of the half and run zone. Florida State hit three straight triples and turned the game on its head. In the second half, Gonzaga got to within five a couple times, but could never make that one offensive play. Their guards shot 5-for-19 from deep. Gonzaga used a six-man rotation, outside of the four minutes from Jacob Larsen and a two minute stint from Jeremy Jones.
Gonzaga at full strength is a much better match-up this year, obviously. Brandon Clarke is more explosive than Williams. Killian Tillie is the floor spacer they need. Rui Hachimura has another year of experience under his belt, and he went up against the trees last season, so he shouldn’t be scared. Geno Crandall gives Gonzaga another piece they didn’t have at their disposal, and may pay huge dividends defensively. He can also alleviate some ball handling duties from Josh Perkins against FSU’s pressure. Zach Norvell and Corey Kispert are another year wiser, looking to both get hot at the same time for four straight games.
For Florida State, they’re playing like one of the best teams in the country. They’re 16-2 in their last 18 games, with the only losses coming to UNC and Duke. They own a win over Virginia and two over Virginia Tech in that run.
They return 7’4” Christ Koumadje from last season. He starts at center, but gets replaced by their leading scorer and best player, 6’10” Mfiondu Kabengele, four minutes into most games. The Seminoles are missing three starters from that team from a season ago. Phil Cofer won’t be playing due to injury and his father’s death. 6’6 guard Braian Angola graduated. Starting point guard CJ Walker transferred. They also don’t have the services of 7’0 Ike Obiagu off the bench. With all that said, they still have depth. Terance Mann, PJ Savoy, Trent Forrest, and MJ Walker are all names you’ll remember. Raiquan Gray is a 6’8 freshman forward who has started for Cofer the last two games. Leonard Hamilton will still run 10 deep, but the overall size is not quite as tall as last season, for whatever that’s worth to Gonzaga fans. The length on the perimeter is still there, but they don’t have multiple seven footers like they did a year ago.
First, let’s give some numbers. Florida State is the 10th ranked defense according to KenPom. They have improved steadily throughout the season, peaking at the right time. They are 22nd in two-point field goal percentage and top 30 in effective field goal percentage and blocks. In general, they prefer to force drives to the middle of the floor and use their length to alter shots. They try to cause a little chaos on the perimeter and force turnovers, something they’ve done incredibly well this season compared to last. Florida State’s best offense is their defense creating transition points. However, they do have a tendency to gamble, and it can lead to easy shots if Gonzaga is patient.
So how can Gonzaga figure out the enigma of the Seminoles’ defense with a full repertoire at their disposal? Let’s start with ball screen coverage. Florida State, generally, prefers not to hedge. Depending on who’s on the floor, they can switch 1-5, or other times 1-4. They also have a tendency to go under screens and force jump shots until guards consistently hit jumpers off the bounce. Josh Perkins and Zach Norvell will have to recognize how they’re being played, something they do very well. If they do go under ball screens, or the switch is giving too much of a gap, they have to make them pay. Gonzaga simply can’t have them shooting 5-for-19 like last year, or repeat their performance from the Saint Mary’s game.
Expect a lot of this: Exploit Christ Koumadje in ball screens. The guy is enormous. He’s 7’4 and protects the rim like crazy. But he’s almost a liability when forced to guard away from the basket. Like most guys that tall, he is not very quick on his feet, so when he’s forced to cover ball screens, he’s either on his heels or he gives way too much space for shots. There’s a reason he only plays 14 minutes a game. To be honest, he may not even see 10 in this game.
The lineups Mark Few and Tommy Loyd use in this game will be interesting. Killian Tillie and Brandon Clarke have the ability to tear this defense apart together. FSU never uses Koumadje and Kabengele at the same time, which I find strange. If Koumadje is in the game, you can ball screen him to death with Clarke, and run some roll and replace action with Tillie. If Kabengele is in the game with Tillie and Clarke, he can pick his poison. If he guards Tillie, that leaves Clarke inside against a 6’8 freshman in Raiquan Gray, who is slow, or a 6’7 Terance Mann, who is undersized. If Kabengele wants to take Clarke inside, then you’ve got the 6’10 Tillie against those two other defenders. I believe pick-and-pops with Tillie will be popular in this one, either for his own shot, or for a high-low look. Gonzaga will be able to exploit mismatches this year because of Tillie. We have not seen a lineup of Hachimura-Tillie-Clarke since early January, but it’s possible Gonzaga pulls it out in this one for a few possessions.
When Rui and Clarke are on the floor, things are a little different. Rui is not quite the floor spacer that Tillie is, but if he can hit a three, that would certainly open things up. Instead, you may see actions like this one, which Gonzaga used last season with Johnathan Williams and Rui. It’s essentially a stagger on-ball screen, with the goal to get a switch and a post iso with Rui while the second screen with Williams gets his defender away from the basket.
As mentioned earlier, FSU likes to take a lot of risks on defense. This means jumping passing lanes, biting on fakes, etc. Anything to get their transition game going. The way to beat that is to use their aggressiveness against them. First and foremost, be patient with the basketball. No need to force passes that aren’t in the flow of the offense. Second, use ball fakes. The fake doesn’t have to be a shot fake to get yourself a shot, either. It can be a pass fake to influence a defender, it can be a shot fake so that a defender blows by and you have an open lane, a fake that freezes the defender for just a second, or it could be a shot fake underneath that creates an and-1 opportunity. Gonzaga is a veteran team with high IQ players. I don’t expect them to be frazzled too much.
This is where the game is going to be won or lost for Gonzaga. Can they stop Florida State off the bounce? First and foremost, if Gonzaga’s offense is smart and limits bad shots/turnovers, half of Florida State’s offense is gone immediately. If you force the Seminoles to play a majority of the game in the half court, you have a good shot at winning. They slash. Every player on the court drives the ball, preferably middle. If they have a floater or layup, they take it. If they don’t, they get an outrageous number of kick-out threes. And these guys have a really quick trigger. So much so, that they force a lot of bad shots. But when they have it going good, they’re a top five team in the country. Job number one: limit penetration.
This isn’t to say Florida State is a good three-point shooting team, by the way. They actually aren’t. They only shoot 33.7 percent. But these drive and kick looks are a staple of their offense and they hoist up 20-25 threes every single game. It takes one night to get hot (11-for-27 vs Murray State) to pull off the upset. Their fastest trigger man, Cofer, is out. But they still have multiple guys who will shoot the ball immediately on the catch from just about anywhere. If you aren’t in guarding position with a hand up, they will pop it in your face. And because so many come off drive-and-kicks, the defense is usually reeling, leaving a lot of offensive rebound opportunities. FSU is 37th in the country in offensive rebounding percentage.
Florida State operates a little differently depending on which big man is in the game. Koumadje is more of a post-up, lob, and offensive rebound type player with very little versatility. Leonard Hamilton loves, loves, loves running plays at the start of games and the start of the second half to get him a lob. They also run a really nice on-ball to back-screen for a lob (last clip) a couple times a game if they can.
Kabengele, on the other hand, does everything. He can post up, he can drive from the perimeter, he can shoot the three, you name it. He’s an unbelievably tough match-up for anyone in the country because of his size and versatility. What they love to do most for him is to pick-and-pop. Teams often try and hedge or show as long as possible so they can cut off dribble penetration, leaving Kabengele open for threes, or at least in a position to attack. In the last two clips here, you’ll see how they use a little brush screen on Kabengele’s man to set up the pick and pop (slow mo).
Injuries: Phil Cofer has already been ruled out because of his father’s passing and a foot injury. Additionally, back-up point guard David Nichols did not play against Murray State after a leg injury in their first round game against Vermont. Reports say he hopes to play, but he may not be 100 percent. The same goes for freshman guard Devin Vassel, who landed awkwardly in the first half against Murray State and never returned. If they both play, FSU will roll 10 deep, with Vassel and Anthony Polite getting limited minutes.
Keys to the game
- Limit penetration. If Florida State gets downhill, they can essentially dictate whatever they want to do. Corey Kispert and Zach Norvell have improved all season defensively. Norvell, especially, has been huge in the tournament with his efforts on Darnell Edge and Makai Mason. All five defenders have to be on their game Thursday.
- Spacing and Smarts. The worst thing you can do against Florida State is have bad spacing on offense. They already pack in the paint enough as it is. If you can spread them out and be smart with the ball, you’ll eventually get a decent shot. Gonzaga’s best defense in this game may be a smart offense (ala vs Duke).
- Perimeter Shooting. If Gonzaga makes eight or more threes in this game, they’ll win. Vermont is the only team in the last 12 games to hit double digit threes on Florida State. Gonzaga will have several open looks at some point during this game. Last year, they didn’t knock them down. We’ll find out on Thursday whether or not they can hit from deep this time around.