Duke-Florida State Showdown In ACC Basketball Race Tonight

In today’s college basketball world, being interested in conference championships—in of themselves, not just a means to a better NCAA Tournament seed—has become somewhat anachronistic. In this regard, I’m proud to be a relic, because I still think finishing atop a 12-team league over the course of a 16-game regular season (or in some cases more) is a big deal for a basketball program regardless of what happens later in March. And therefore, tonight’s Duke-Florida State game (7 PM ET, ESPN) in Tallahassee is as significant a game as we’ve seen all year. TheSportsNotebook takes a deeper look at the matchup.

The Blue Devils and Seminoles both come in at 10-2 in ACC play and the winner keeps pace with North Carolina, who moved to 11-2 on Tuesday. Duke still has a head-to-head game with the Tar Heels in Durham, while Florida State is finished playing UNC.  Florida State is already 2-0 in its games against their two rivals, but if they lose this one, Duke has only Virginia Tech and Wake Forest between them and a winner-take-all battle with the Heels on the regular season’s final Saturday night, meaning Florida State faces a must-win spot on its home floor. The ‘Noles themselves still have road trips to NCAA contenders Miami and Virginia, meaning Duke could reasonably hope for a loss that enabled Mike Krzyzewski’s team to angle back into a tie.

When these teams met in Durham, Florida State pulled a shocking 76-73 upset. Michael Snaer was the hero. The 6’5” junior guard first hit a desperation three to end the first half, then he won the game with a buzzer-beating trey in the second half. Snaer is just one part of a deep backcourt, where head coach Leonard Hamilton can reliably play four different people. Devividas Dulkys, the Lithuanian who went off for 32 points in a shocking rout of North Carolina back on January 14 is one of them. Luke Loucks, a playmaking senior at the point is another, and Ian Miller is a sophomore who chips in about ten points a game. FSU is best when the combo of Loucks, Snaer and Dulkys are on the floor. While the latter doesn’t usually score anywhere near like he did against Carolina, this trio gives Hamilton a good blend of scoring and ability to open up defenses from long range.

Perhaps no one in the country opens up defenses from long range like Duke does, and that’s something UNC head coach Roy Williams would surely attest. Duke won perhaps the regular season’s most memorable game in Chapel Hill a couple weeks ago because they hit their threes. And really, that’s all they did. Carolina owned the Blue Devils in the paint, they shot the ball better, they scored a few more points at the free throw line…but UNC only hit one three-point shot. Duke launched 36 and made 14, including Austin Rivers’ game-winner. It’s going to be absolutely necessary for Hamilton to extend his defense right from the outset. Krzyzewski on the other hand, can wait and see how the early part of the game unfolds, and if the ‘Noles have a hot hand from behind the arc.

Duke center Mason Plumlee is as reliable at his position as anyone in the conference, but that doesn’t stop Florida State from having the edge inside. The Blue Devils can be a little too finesse in the way they play on the front court, and I specifically have Ryan Kelly in mind. The power forward joins guards Rivers, Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins in having a good three-point shot, but the benefit Duke gets from another long-range gunner is minimal. What they need is for Kelly to get 10-12 rebounds and help Plumlee. Because Florida State can match up with Plumlee. Bernard James is an underappreciated post player, averaging 10 points/8 rebounds a night and the ‘Noles get good work from Okaro White and Xavier Gibson on the glass. If Kelly can’t get to the glass, Plumlee alone won’t be enough and Florida State will win the rebounding battle.

Florida State uses more players on a consistent basis, with six drawing 20-plus minutes and eight being a part of the regular rotation. That’s even after a season-ending shoulder injury to Terrance Shannon back in December. Duke’s X-factors off the bench are Mason’s brother Miles, who could give Coach K the rebounding he needs if Kelly ends up AWOL. Tyler Thornton has gotten his share of starts and is another guard who can nail the three.

Duke comes into tonight’s game a two-point favorite, and the Over/Under is sitting on 139, so that equates to a final score of about 71-69. If the Blue Devils hit their three-point shots, they’ll win by more than that. But Florida State is a more complete basketball team, they’re deeper and they are playing at home. If we were playing a best-of-seven I would pick the Seminoles without hesitation. The ability of Duke’s shooting to change the dynamic of a one-game shot give me a bit of pause, but in the end I like the more balanced home team to get the win here.

In other conference races…

Big East: Syracuse needs one more win to wrap it up and they go to UConn on Saturday night and then back home to play Louisville. Both tough games, but given that Marquette and Notre Dame each have some very difficult road tests ahead, it’s likely the Orange could back in if they were so inclined.

Atlantic 10: TheSportsNotebook talked about this race in yesterday’s feature. Temple nipped LaSalle last night, keeping the Owls on track and ending any longshot NCAA at-large hopes for the Explorers.

Big Ten: Michigan State, featured here earlier this week, kept atop the race with a win at Minnesota. Ohio State and Michigan are giving chase a game back.

SEC: Kentucky’s already locked up a co-championship, with a three-game lead on Florida with three to play. Home games with Vandy and Georgia give UK a chance to clinch outright before a season-ending trip to Gainesville.

Big 12: Missouri-Kansas was going to be the game of the year on Saturday, head-up for the conference title. With Mizzou’s loss to Kansas State, the Jayhawks hold command for at least a piece of the crown.

Mountain West: New Mexico, who got a brief shoutout as part of the Michigan State feature, lost to Colorado State last night, but still leads UNLV and San Diego State by a game. And the Lobos remaining schedule is TCU, Air Force and Boise State, the latter two at home, enabling a cakewalk to the crown.

Pac-12: We’ll take a look at this race in more depth next week, but Cal and Washington are tied for first and have all remaining games on the road. Problem is, none of them are against Arizona, Oregon or Colorado, the trio within two games of the co-leaders.