- Dave George Palm Beach Post Sports Columnist
The first-round jitters are out of the way for Florida State and Florida in the NCAA Tournament. If they are both worthy of their high seeds, the flaws of Thursday’s opening-round wins will be burned out of their systems and a new toughness will be burned in.
The Seminoles, No. 3 in the West region, face Xavier in Saturday night’s second round at the Amway Center in downtown Orlando. If that doesn’t mean anything to you, it certainly does to the NCAA selection committee. Xavier is one of 10 Big East teams that landed spots in the tournament, and there are only 10 teams in the league.
Leonard Hamilton didn’t have much to say about that or really anything else following Thursday’s 86-80 win over Florida Gulf Coast. FSU’s coach was still grumpy about turnovers and other mistakes that turned a double-digit lead into a sweatier final minute than was needed.
“Obviously, when we hit our free throws, we don’t have an issue,” said Hamilton, whose guys missed 15 out of 39 and gave the Dunk City boys a comeback opportunity because of it. “We didn’t shoot free throws very well down the stretch, and if you don’t, you can put yourself in a position where this stuff can happen.
“It makes everything look bad.”
Well, almost everything. Dwayne Bacon made 11-of-17 shots for 25 points, which kind of works, and fantastic freshman Jonathan Isaac, so versatile at 6-feet-10, had a double-double of 17 points and 10 rebounds. Add in a 20-rebound edge over the outmanned Eagles and nine blocked shots, including four by 7-4 Christ Koumadje, and it’s easy to see how the Seminoles have gotten to 27-8, the second-highest win total in program history.
FGCU players often drove the lane looking to pass rather than dunk. It was downright scary down there, and not much safer out on the three-point line.
Brandon Goodwin, a very creative scorer and MVP of the Atlantic Sun conference tournament, made just 2-of-10 from long range. He was badgered by FSU’s taller guards and exhausted from playing all but two minutes of the game in a desperate attempt to keep his team meaningfully engaged.
Xavier guard Trevon Bluiett will be the next big-time shooter targeted by Hamilton and his scouting staff. Bluiett is twice an All Big East first-teamer and he made half of his 10 3-point attempts in Thursday’s 76-65 win over Maryland. The Musketeers are tournament savvy, earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAAs last year and reached the Sweet 16 in 2015.
Isaac was asked about that experience gap, and whether the Seminoles, who haven’t been in the tournament since 2012, are building something new.
“I think we took that first step a long time ago,” he said. “When we first got together, we talked about changing the culture and changing what Florida State is about. This is just the back end of what we’ve done, getting to the tournament and being able to win a game.”
The Gators, No. 4 seed in the East, are feeling much better, too, after thumping East Tennessee State 80-65 in Thursday’s opening round. March had been a mess for them up until then, with losses in three of the last four games heading into the tourney and just one game in the SEC tournament, an overtime defeat to Vanderbilt.
To keep it going will require better execution of the half-court offense, because Virginia, Florida’s second-round opponent in the late Saturday game, won’t allow the kind of runout baskets that the Gators had against ETSU. Twenty points scored on turnovers broke that game open after a sluggish first half, plus a pair of 3-pointers delivered back-to-back by 6-foot-8 Devin Robinson.
Yeah, Robinson can do that, in addition to the windmill dunks you might have seen on the ESPN highlight reels. He had five dunks against ETSU, including one where he pump-faked from the deep corner and flashed to the rim to slam it home instead.
Virginia, 11-7 in the rugged ACC and 23-10 overall, is a defensive giant. The Cavaliers limited opponents to 12 scoring droughts in excess of five minutes during the season. On Feb. 27, Virginia limited North Carolina, a No. 1 seed in this tournament, to 43 points. The last time the Tar Heels scored that little was in the days before the shot clock, when Dean Smith sometimes stalled on offense for large portions of a game.
North Carolina-Wilmington seemingly had Virginia on the ropes in Thursday’s first-round game, building a 15-point lead in the first half. Then the Cavaliers turned up the defense and went on a 16-1 run.
Before the tournament, I thought FSU had the best chance among our state schools of advancing to the Sweet 16, and that hasn’t changed. Florida hits too many dead spots in the middle of games where the points simply won’t come.
The Gators have a good young coach in Mike White, however, and he knows what to do with such predictions.
Just before Thursday’s tipoff with ETSU, he showed a video from Sunday’s Selection Show with CBS analyst Seth Davis confidently picking Florida as his first upset of the tournament. Smart start to a coach’s March Madness debut.