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Basketball Observations: FSU KO’s Xavier, marches on to the Sweet 16

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It’s the fifth Sweet 16 appearance in school history and the second this decade.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Xavier vs Florida State Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Two days after easily dispatching the SEC’s Missouri Tigers (a trendy pick to make a deep run), the Seminoles summoned one of their best performances of the season to upset the Big East’s number 1 seeded Xavier Musketeers 75-70 in what was a “semi-road” game in Nashville. The win exacted some sweet revenge after Xavier took down Florida State in last year’s NCAA Tournament.

Above the Rim:

  • This year (like a lot of years) I have been asked several times if it would just be better to make a run in the NIT instead of drawing an 8-11 seed in the NCAA Tournament. The “logic” behind those kind of questions being, is it better for a young team to gain experience potentially going deep in a one-and-done styled tournament instead of possibly being bounced in the first round of the Big Dance? Hopefully, this Xavier game forever ends those questions from this fan base. We’ve said this repeatedly over the years, but it’s worth mentioning once again: the goal for any college basketball team is to make the NCAA Tournament as frequently as possible. Once you get in, it’s all a crapshoot dictated by matchups. Every single year we see top teams lose in the first two rounds and we see double digit seeds make a run to the Sweet 16 or further. When judging programs and coaches, most fans tend to put far too much weight on NCAA Tourney runs and not enough on consistently being competitive enough to put yourself in position for an NCAA Tourney run—especially when looking at small sample sizes of two or three appearances. Kudos to this bunch of Seminoles for pulling off the stunning upset, but even more props for making it back to the Dance in a year when it wasn’t expected, giving themselves a chance to be a part of March Madness in the first place.
  • FSU wore down both Missouri and Xavier. Now, unlike what ALL of the announcers have been saying, it wasn’t the “great depth” that did the trick—at least not in the sense that most people mean when they talk about depth. FSU and Xavier both played only 6 guys more than 14 minutes and Missouri played 8 guys double-digit minutes while FSU only played 7. What did help FSU was their preparation for having to play physical, intense battles at an often times frenetic pace, while getting contributions from every guy who checks into the game. The ACC is a grind. The games feature elite talent, varied styles of play, and a level of physicality that isn’t present night in and night out in most conferences. In league-only play, the ACC ranks 8th (out of 32) in offensive rebound percentage, 8th in steal percentage, and 2nd in block percentage...while ranking 31st in free throw rate. On top of that, Florida State is the most up-tempo team in the ACC, meaning they are used to playing and executing at a frenetic pace. On the mental side of things, FSU doesn’t rely on any one, two, or even three players. Every guy who plays significant minutes legitimately provides a specific role for this team. This allows players to be ready in the moment when their number is called, as they understand what their role is. Simply put, despite using roughly the same number of contributors in their first and second wins, FSU was the more physically and mentally strong team in both games.
  • FSU’s perimeter shooting sprung back to life. After a prolonged slump in the middle of ACC play (some of which coincided with PJ Savoy being out with an injury), the Seminoles were 15-38 (39.4%) from downtown in their two games in Nashville. This is critical to FSU’s success, as it both opens up lanes for the ‘Noles’ bevy of slashers and also helps prevent opponents from getting easy buckets in transition off long rebounds.
  • It wasn’t quite 2011 levels, but the Junkyard Defense is starting to bark. For most of the season FSU struggled to generate turnovers, especially the live-ball variety. Florida State is designed to score on the primary or secondary break and that’s hard to do consistently off of made shots by the opponent. Creating turnovers around 19% of possessions coming into the NCAA Tournament, FSU turned Missouri over 23.1% of possessions and then frustrated Xavier into a 26% turnover rate—their third highest in the last two seasons.
  • Free throws were critical. The ACC leader in FT rate, FSU had a 63.3 FT rate against Mizzou, good for third best on the season. Then against Xavier, the ‘Noles were able to sink 19-22 from the charity stripe, allowing them to overcome the Musketeers sporting their second best FT rate (61.2) of the season. (For those who don’t know, FT Rate is the ratio of free throws to FG attempts. Generally, it’s a much better indicator of success at the FT line than raw FT percentage).
  • Basketball is a sport that shares similarities with boxing. They are both sports that feature “runs of momentum” and sometimes surviving an onslaught in the middle of a run is the best you can do. Just get to the bell (or next media timeout), catch your breath, and make adjustments. They are also both sports where body blows don’t often make the highlights, but they are what ultimately do in the opponent. Against Xavier, offensive rebounds down the stretch were the body blows that set up the hay-maker from Savoy. Mann’s tip in with 7:09 remaining cut the Xavier lead to seven. Then Mfiondu Kabengele scored on offensive rebounds on back-to-back possessions to tie the game at 68. If Xavier is able to close out those possessions, it’s very likely that FSU goes down.

Court Level:

  • What more needs to be said about Trent Forrest? This kid is blossoming into a star before our very eyes. He’s borderline impossible to defend when he gets going downhill toward the basket and he’s got the lateral quickness and eyes of a defensive back, allowing him to wreck havoc in the passing lanes. This kid is a jump shot away from the NBA.
  • Terance Mann wasn’t expected to play after re-aggravating his groin on Friday night against Mizzou due to highly questionable court conditions. Yet, the junior gutted out a gritty 24 minutes and was essential due to his defense against Xavier star Trevon Bluiett. Also, while he’s still not as confident in his jump shot as a guy of his caliber needs to be, he didn’t hesitate to pull the trigger on a corner three—and drained it—that got FSU within 10 points with 8:27 left.
  • Mfiondu Kabengele is going to be a star before he leaves FSU. Still fairly new to the game, he’s developing seemingly by the half right now. He’s the best rebounder on the team, he can defend multiple positions, and he’s developing an ability to score at all three levels. Sensational work by Stan Jones and Coach Hamilton to have this freshman ready to perform on the biggest stage.
  • PJ Savoy has that uncanny ability to always believe his next shot is going in...and lately he’s been right more often than not. The junior started the year with a shooting slump and then missed 7 consecutive games with injury. However, since his return he has been exactly what FSU recruited him to be—a three point assassin. Savoy followed up a 3-6 performance against Missouri with a 3-5 showing against Xavier, including the knockout blow. In total, Savoy is 23-54 (42.5%) from deep since coming back on February 10th.
  • Senior Braian Angola was the KenPom MVP of the game. He didn’t have the game-winner like Savoy and he didn’t have the jump-off-the-screen plays as Trent or Mfiondu, but he was a steadying hand across 36 minutes of action and filled up the box score. His three long range bombs in the first half kept FSU in it when Xavier could have extended the lead and his aggressiveness to the rim in the second half resulted in points or fouls on several occasions. He also contributed six rebounds, three assists, two steals, and a block.

Post Game:

Instead of the post-game, how about just re-watch an 8 minute version of the entire FSU/Xavier game!

Looking Ahead:

With the win, FSU advances to the Sweet 16 where they will face the 4th seeded Gonzaga Bulldogs. The game will tip Thursday night (sometime after 10:00pm) and will be played at the Staples Center in Los Angeles. The last time FSU squared off with Gonzaga was in a first round NCAA Tournament 8/9 seed matchup in 2010, a 67-60 loss for the Seminoles. This year’s Gonzaga team is 32-4, coming off an appearance in the 2017 NCAA title game, and has only lost one time since the calendar flipped to 2018.