TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – The Florida State men’s basketball team is nearing the end of a stretch of four games in eight days.
The first three have come easily. The fourth likely won’t.
After routing George Washington, Southern Mississippi and Nicholls State by an average margin of 41 points, the Seminoles are due for a steep increase in competition when they host No. 21 Florida in the “Fresh From Florida Sunshine Showdown” Sunday at 4 p.m. (ESPNU)
FSU has won two straight against the Gators and can claim its first three-game streak over UF since 2006-08. The Gators are 8-2, but their losses have come to top-10 teams Duke and Gonzaga.
“The Gators are always a big-time game, big-time atmosphere,” junior guard Xavier Rathan-Mayes said. “It’s a game that we’ve been looking forward to for the last week. We didn’t want to look past anybody, but we knew we had Florida coming up on Sunday and we’re super-excited for this game.”
If recent history is any indication, Sunday’s game is likely to come down to the wire. Each of the last two meetings between FSU and UF have been decided by two points, with the Seminoles claiming memorable victories in both.
The Seminoles earned a dramatic, 65-63 triumph in 2014, when UF’s Jacob Kurtz accidentally tipped a would-be rebound into his own basket at the buzzer.
FSU won in more conventional fashion a year later when Dwayne Bacon, then a freshman, knocked down a mid-range jump shot with 4.6 seconds left to give the Seminoles a 73-71 win in Gainesville. It was the first game-winning shot of Bacon’s career.
Seminoles coach Leonard Hamilton expects more of the same in this year’s iteration of the rivalry, which will mark the 58th all-time meeting between the two schools.
“Obviously, Sunday takes on another level of competitiveness for us,” Hamilton said. “You’ve got a very good University of Florida basketball team that’s national ranked, loaded with talent and very well coached.
“They’ll be well prepared, like they always are.”
The Seminoles believe they will be, too.
While FSU’s last four opponents haven’t dealt the Seminoles much in the way of adversity, they have allowed Hamilton a chance to try out some different lineup combinations and provided the players time to get more comfortable in the team’s system.
For a group that has five first-year players averaging at least 12 minutes per game, that can be valuable.
And they’re about to get a great gauge of exactly how far they’ve come.
“These games have really allowed us to get sharper defensively and offensively,” Rathan-Mayes said. “Sunday is going to be a great test for us. We’ve got a lot of younger guys, and it’s going to be on our older guys and our veterans to kind of help bring them along. I think if they just lean on us and we do a great job leading, we’ll be in a good place Sunday night.”
FSU should get a boost by the return of freshman Jonathan Isaac, who Hamilton expects to play after missing the last three games with a hip flexor injury.
The Seminoles’ rejuvenated defense, meanwhile, will be tested by UF’s KeVaughn Allen, a sophomore guard who leads the Gators with 13.3 points per game and who dropped 32 in a losing effort against FSU a year ago.
And FSU’s frontcourt must contend with junior center John Egbunu, who, at 6-11, 255 pounds, is averaging nine points and eight rebounds per game.
“I’m worried about them, but I’m not worried about them,” senior center Michael Ojo said. “Because I know we will do what we have to do and prepare very well for that game. They’re a very good team. They’re ranked. They’re somewhere that we’re trying to get to. So, I think it’s one of the teams that we have to pass through to get to where we want to go.”
A win over the Gators would extend an impressive recent run of dominance for FSU over Florida.
It started two weeks ago, when the Seminoles football team enjoyed a 41-14 romp over UF at Doak Campbell Stadium. A few days later, FSU volleyball rallied from a two-set deficit to win in Gainesville and eliminate the Gators from the second round of the NCAA tournament. Then, on Thursday, Sue Semrau’s FSU women’s basketball team beat Florida, 83-58, in what was the program’s fourth-largest win over UF in history.
With so much momentum behind them, the FSU men have made upholding that standard a top priority.
“All our other sports teams have held up their end of the bargain,” Rathan-Mayes said. “Now it’s our turn.”