Can Mike Scott and the Hoos get it done on Senior Night?
After a gut-wrenching 54-51 home loss to UNC on Saturday, the Virginia Cavaliers (21-7, 8-6 ACC) are back in action Thursday night at the John Paul Jones Arena, playing host to the Florida State Seminoles (19-9, 10-4 ACC). Will the Cavs secure their first win against Florida State since their last NCAA Tournament appearance in 2007, or will the Noles pick up their 20th win on the season?
The Florida State Primer takes a look.
1. Earlier this season, Florida State lived up to its derisive nickname, the Criminoles, by persistently picking UVa’s pockets, forcing 20 Virginia turnovers in a 58-55 victory down in Tallahassee. Of course, the Noles themselves coughed up the ball 19 times. Neither of these numbers was especially anomalous. Florida State forces 15.6 turnovers a game, making them No. 33 in the country in this statistic. But the opposite side of the coin is that the Seminoles are No. 338 in team turnovers per game with 16.4. On the road, they force 14.2 turnovers a game but turn it over 16.3 times a game themselves.
2. It’s thus not very surprising that outside of the upset of Duke in Durham, Florida State hasn’t fared very well in road/neutral games this season. Leonard Hamilton’s squad has amassed a 5-7 record in such games, with only victories over UMass (neutral) and NC State (road) warranting mention alongside the win in Cameron. Most of the Florida State losses away from home have been to teams that are either locks for the tournament (Florida & Michigan State) or on the bubble (Harvard, Connecticut, and Miami), but the Noles were also blown out at Clemson (79-59) and recently lost a tight one to Boston College at the Conte Forum (64-60). That loss to Boston College put an end to the high water mark of Florida State’s season, during which it won 7 straight, including stomping the Heels, bedeviling Duke, and tripping up UVa.
3. But since the first game with Virginia, the Noles really have struggled, limping to a 3-3 mark. In the loss to Boston College, Florida State forced a young team into only 10 turnovers and allowed the Eagles to shoot 45.5% from behind the arc. Then, after grinding out a 64-59 home victory against Miami, the Seminoles sleepwalked through 38 and a half minutes of their home game against a banged up Virginia Tech squad before an 11-1 spurt turned a 9-point deficit into a 48-47 win. Then, after a road victory over NC State, FSU lost its return engagement with Duke, dropping a 74-66 decision at home. Finally, on Sunday, tussling with a Miami team that had just learned that Reggie Johnson had been declared ineligible, the Noles simply didn’t show up in a 78-62 drubbing in which the Hurricanes shot 45% from 3-point range.
Overall, Florida State’s opponents have hit on 37.7% of their shots from behind the arc in the last 6 games and at a 41.7% clip in the last 3 games. These numbers compare disfavorably with Florida State’s 3-point defense on the season – opponents are only averaging 30.4% from behind the arc, making the Noles No. 28 in the country in 3-point field goal defense. What this also means is that the effective field goal percentage of FSU’s opponents has risen. In the last 3 games, this percentage is 47.5% versus a season average of 43.3%. Basically, what opponents have started to do is penetrate and kick it out to open 3-point shooters when Leonard Hamilton’s junkyard defense collapses on the driver. Then, when the defense compensates by staying at home, the driver finishes with more open space. In the first meeting, Jontel filled both of these bills, going 4/7 from the field, mostly on drives to the hoop, and dishing out 5 dimes. Still, the Hoos only shot 33.3% from 3, with many of the shots contested. With Evans emerging as even more of an offensive threat since the first game and both Sammy Zeglinski and Paul Jesperson starting to find their shots, I like the Hoos’ chances at improving that stat.
4. If 3-point defense is the biggest factor in the Noles’ recent struggles, 3-point offense isn’t far behind. In their 7-game winning streak, Florida State hit on 44.64% of their shots from behind the arc (including 41.66% against Virginia), but it has connected on only 28% of such shots in the last 6 games. Part of the explanation for this 16+ percentage point drop is regression toward the mean: Florida State is only hitting on 33.3% of its 3-pointers on the season. But another piece of the puzzle seems to be that Florida State has moved away from the inside-outside game. Instead, its guards seem less inclined to feed the posts and more inclined to take contested 3-pointers outside the flow of the offense. The guards of course have to shoulder their share of blame for this, but, the way that at least some Seminole fans see it, Bernard James could be the culprit. Over on Florida State’s Rivals board, there’s a thread discussing how James has looked tired and/or apathetic in the last several games generally and the Miami game specifically. According to some posters, James is giving up on plays, not setting screens, not giving it his all, and getting agitated with his teammates. I don’t know how hyperbolic these posters are being, but I do know that Akil Mitchell , Darion Atkins , and Mike Scott (playing on Senior Night) will bring it every play and that if James does not reciprocate, the Noles could be in some real trouble.
5. This trouble would include problems with putting points on the board, but it would also involve difficulty stopping Mike Scott. We all know that Scott struggled on Saturday for a variety of reasons and will want to bounce back on Thursday in his last game in front of his home fans. I also think that he has some unfinished business against the Seminoles. Florida State is one of only two teams that UVa hasn’t beaten since Scott joined the team, and he had a difficult afternoon against them earlier this year. Of course, Scott had a double-double in that game (16 points/11 rebounds) and shot a scintillating 6/8 from the field. But there’s a reason why he only took 8 shots, his fewest on the ACC season. He had a career-high 7 turnovers. That’s 3 more turnovers than he has had in any other game over his 4+ years at UVa (except for a 6 turnover game against Radford last season, where his injury seemed to play a role). I think that more than anything else, Scott’s performance against Florida State led Tony Bennett to start utilizing his senior star as more of a mover in the Blocker-Mover offense, which has allowed him to get his shot off quickly and avoid the double teams that could lead to turnovers. In the 6 games since the first Florida State game, Scott has only a total of 9 turnovers (1.5/game) and has taken an average of 14.33 shots per game (86 shots). Look for Scott to shoot early and often on Thursday, and look for him to make many more than he did against the Heels. And if James or whomever Leonard Hamilton puts on the Cavalier forward doesn’t bring the defensive intensity, Scott’s last home game could truly be a night to remember.
6. Sabre Poster 504-C Brandon has the game as a 58-53.8 Virginia win, with the Hoos having a 64% chance of winning. The Team Rankings simulation (available here) has UVa winning by the narrowest of margins, 55.7-55.2.
I’ve commented before about Florida State being UVa’s nightmare matchup because of its ability to force turnovers and clean the offensive glass. But the Noles are also a mediocre team on the road and they are not playing at near the level we saw in the first meeting. Moreover, everyone on the team knows what’s at stake here. A win on Thursday basically wraps up the NCAA Tournament bid that the team covets so badly. Mike Scott and Jontel Evans even vowed not to cut their hair until the team made the Big Dance. On Senior Night, Scott and Zeglinski will lead, and the rest of the team will follow. It won’t be easy, but I see the Cavaliers grinding out a 59-54 victory over the Seminoles to secure a winning ACC season.
Author’s Note: Many of the statistics and analysis in this article were gathered through watching the two teams, ESPN.com, 504-C Brandon’s TAPE site, Warren Nolan RPI site, Teamrankings.com, and KenPom.com.