Florida State Cracks The Duke-UNC Establishment In The ACC

The eyes of the ACC and ESPN are on North Carolina-Duke tonight when they renew their rivalry in Chapel Hill (9 PM ET). In the ACC, this is the equivalent of the Red Sox-Yankees rivalry—it sucks all the air out of the room and leaves other conference contenders fighting for attention. And just like in the AL East, ACC basketball has a contender down in the state of Florida that’s worthy of some media love. Florida State has beaten both Duke and North Carolina—the Blue Devils on the road, and the Heels by 33 points—and is tied for first with UNC, a game up on Duke as we enter Wednesday night’s action. TheSportsNotebook will pick up where the mainstream media leaves off and take a closer look at the Seminoles, comparing them to their better-known rivals.

Florida State is a deep team, with seven players giving Leonard Hamilton substantive minutes and they are well-balanced, inside and out. The point guard is Luke Loucks, a senior who does a respectable job running the offense and is a decent enough shooter to make a defense respect him. Deividas Dulkys has a nice jump shot at the two-guard spot and scored 32 in the win over Carolina. The best of the group is Michael Snaer, who shoots well both inside and outside the arc, averages 14 ppg, scored 17 against Carolina and matched his average against Duke, including the game-winning three-pointer at the buzzer. Hamilton also gets help from Ian Miller, a sophomore who scores 10 ppg, but needs to improve his shooting and needs to do more against the better teams in the ACC—he’s averaging four points a game against UNC, Duke and Virginia.

This backcourt won’t overwhelm you, but there are no obvious weaknesses, and there’s a clear go-to player in Snaer. While the trey isn’t a big part of Dulkys’ game, it’s at least good enough (39%) that defenses have to respect it. This is a backcourt group significantly better than what’s on hand in North Carolina. While the Tar Heel point guard Kendall Marshall is one of the best in the country at handing out assists, two-guard is a hole, and a season-ending knee injury to Dexter Strickland stripped away any depth. Duke, however, is better situated here. Austin Rivers, Seth Curry and Andre Dawkins have played good defense throughout the year and all are respectable scorers. We can situate FSU’s backcourt in the middle among the three contenders.

Florida State rotates three players inside, with Okaro White, Bernard James and Xavier Gibson. James is the leader at 10 points/9 rebounds, while White’s at 9/5 and Gibson an 8/5. The physical stature of the trio is solid, with James going 6’10”and Gibson at 6’11”. Both are seniors, giving the team an experience edge even with White being in only his second year. In the ACC’s three key games—Virginia, along with Duke and Carolina, Hamilton has gotten good games from two of the three each time, and James is one of the conference’s best overall rebounders.

The frontcourt is good, but doesn’t match up with North Carolina’s package of Harrison Barnes, Tyler Zeller and John Henson. Then again, no one in the country, save perhaps Baylor and Kentucky, can match up with the Tar Heels on the blocks in terms of both talent and depth. I do give FSU’s personnel a slight edge on Duke. While Blue Devil center Mason Plumlee can alter the equation on any given night, he can be inconsistent, and there’s not always a lot of help. Ryan Kelly is more of a finesse power forward, and Mason’s brother Miles is hit and miss off the bench. Florida State gets consistently good work from James, and the supporting efforts of White and Gibson can’t be discounted.

So just in terms of raw talent, we can say Florida State matches up with North Carolina and Duke, having better guards than the Heels and better frontcourt players than the Blue Devils. And that’s before we look at any on-the-court results. Which reminds, did I mention that Florida State beat North Carolina by 33 and beat Duke on the road? Can we drill this into the heads of everyone at ESPN tonight when they talk about the ACC race?

In addition to the Duke-UNC media hype machine, there are legitimate, substantive reasons, Florida State has struggled to get attention worthy of their performance. FSU did get off to a slow start in December. They played a good schedule, but lost every notable game, including UConn, Michigan State, Florida and Harvard, whose ranked in the Top 25 out of the Ivy League this year. The ‘Noles also fell to Princeton in triple overtime. When ACC play began and Florida State lost to Clemson by twenty points, it dropped them to 9-6 overall and 1-1 in the league. No one could have seen the six-game winning streak and subsequent big wins coming, so I suppose I should cut the media a little slack for needing a little catch-up time.

Now, let’s look forward—would you take Florida State to win the ACC? I’m not sure I’m ready to go there. We’ve looked at the talent and body of work, but we haven’t factored in what Roy Williams and Mike Krzyzewski might be able to do in February and early March. I mean no disrespect to Hamilton, but these are two of the sport’s legends he’s got to try and outmaneuver. With Duke having lost two home games, I like FSU’s chances of beating out the Blue Devils, but I still think Carolina’s a little too loaded. The schedule works in Florida State’s favor—they don’t have to make a return visit to Chapel Hill, but I’d still lean the Heels in a close race.

Whomever you pick to win though, make no mistake about it. This is at least a three-team race, and by saying three teams, it’s Duke—the team who’s lost twice at home—that we’re giving the benefit of the doubt too, and not Florida State. The ‘Noles are the Tampa Bay Rays of ACC hoops, a true threat at upending the establishment.