Outside of the return of Duke’s Zion Williamson, the biggest talking point heading into the ACC tournament was whether or not the conference can earn three No. 1-seeds in next week’s NCAA tournament.
And once the ACC tournament ends there should be another talking point: No. 12 Florida State is every bit as capable as Virginia, Duke and North Carolina of getting to Minneapolis.
Friday night Leonard Hamilton’s Seminoles were the aggressors for the majority of their matchup with second-ranked Virginia, winning by the final score of 69-59 in Charlotte.
The combination of depth, athleticism and execution proved to be too much for Virginia, which will still be a No. 1-seed when the 68-team NCAA tournament bracket is revealed Sunday evening. How Tony Bennett’s team deals with athletic teams that can spread them out on the defensive end is a question that has come up quite often during his program’s current run of excellence, and it’s likely to come up again in the aftermath of Friday’s loss.
But what should also be acknowledged in those discussions is that there aren’t many teams like Florida State.
Four players scored in double figures for the Seminoles, including reserves David Nichols (14 points, five rebounds, three assists and two steals) and Mfiondu Kabengele (ten points, six rebounds and two blocked shots). Kabengele was the ACC’s best sixth man, and in Nichols the Seminoles have an experienced point guard who joined the program last summer as a grad transfer after a standout career at Albany.
Sixth-year senior Phil Cofer scored ten points and Trent Forrest ten, and in total six players scored at least nine points. Not included in that group: talented guard Terence Mann, who attempted just three shots and finished the night with two points. For most teams a quiet night from a player the caliber of Mann would spell doom; not for Florida State.
The Seminoles were able to disrupt Virginia’s offensive actions for much of the night, and on the other end they relentlessly attacked mismatches. Virginia freshman guard Kihei Clark, whose presence on the floor frees up Ty Jerome to play off the ball more on the offensive end, found himself being backed down on multiple occasions and couldn’t do a whole lot to stop it.
The issue for Virginia with regards to the possibility of replacing Clark with a taller defender, thus putting Jerome back on the ball: they didn’t get enough production from the bench to justify this move. Virginia’s reserves scored a total of eight points, with Florida State getting 28 from its bench.
While the Cavaliers are deeper than they were a season ago (De’Andre Hunter getting hurt was a problem), they’ll need consistent production from Braxton Key and Mamadi Diakite if they’re to play deep into the NCAA tournament.
Should Virginia be a one-seed? Yes, and their body of work for the entire season backs that up. The Cavaliers’ loss will spark questions about their vulnerability, but this result was more about what Florida State was able to do.
Last year’s group caught fire late, surprising many with the run to the Elite Eight. This time around the Seminoles, who still have work to do in Charlotte, have the look of a group that can go even further. And it won’t be a surprise, either.