NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Given Xavier’s No. 1 seed, 29-5 record and senior-heavy roster, it’s no surprise that Leonard Hamilton believes that the Musketeers team that his Seminoles will face here Sunday in the second round of the NCAA tournament is much improved from the one they met in the same round a year ago.
Xavier, seeded 11th in last year’s tournament, ended No. 3-seed FSU’s season with a stunning, 91-66 win in which it shot 64.7 percent from 3-point range.
Twelve months later, the seeds planted by that win, and a subsequent run to the Elite Eight, have helped Xavier blossom into what Hamilton believes is one of the best teams in the country.
Both teams will find out exactly what difference a year makes when they meet in a rematch for a spot in the NCAA west region semifinal on Sunday at Bridgestone Arena in Nashville (7:40 p.m., TNT).
“I think they’re better than they were last year,” the FSU coach said. “Because they’re older, more experienced. They have basically the entire team coming back … Emotionally, they don’t get rattled.”
That feeling may be mutual.
While FSU’s seed (9) and record (21-11) aren’t as lofty as last year’s, Xavier coach Chris Mack said that he expects a better version of the Seminoles, too. Despite the fact that FSU features a virtually brand-new cast of characters from the one Mack saw a year ago, a group that’s without three players who went on to make NBA rosters.
The reason, Mack said, is that while FSU might not have a lottery pick like Jonathan Isaac in the post, or a draft choice like Dwayne Bacon running the floor, he believes that this year’s Seminoles play better as a collective unit.
“I see a team that plays for one another, that plays together,” he said. “I think it’s a much better ‘sum-of-its-parts’ team than maybe a year ago.
“That’s no disrespect to the guys that were on the team a year ago. But that’s sort of what happens when guys start to climb up the draft boards and feel like they’re auditioning in March a little bit.”
Florida State, of course, hopes that a different team will lead to a different result.
Led by 29 points from forward Trevon Bluiett, Xavier raced out to a 10-point lead at halftime and never looked back.
Four of Xavier’s starters from that game have returned, including seniors Bluiett (19.6 points, 5.6 rebounds per game) and J.P. Macura (12.7 points per game).
Of Florida State’s usual starting five, only Terance Mann played more than 11 minutes against Xavier a year ago, and Hamilton said he doesn’t expect Mann to be available after aggravating an apparent groin injury during Friday’s win over Missouri.
“I don’t think we, as a team, were as good as we played for 40 minutes, and I think the Florida State was as poor of a team as they played for that 40 minutes,” Mack said. “Having said that, (last year’s game) will have nothing to do with tomorrow.”
Instead, Mack said he believes the Musketeers must be careful with the ball and not allow the Seminoles to parlay turnovers into easy baskets – as they did so effectively against Missouri.
And he expects a firm test from an FSU frontcourt that boasts four players at least 6-foot-8 or taller.
“We were, and we are now, petrified of their ball pressure and their ability to rattle offenses,” Mack said. “They get out in the passing lanes and deny. They have such incredible makeup ability, when you get around them, at blocking shots and (blocks) leading to the break. …
“I mean, they’re high-major, ACC-caliber players. We know that, and we’re going to have to deal with that.”
Hamilton, meanwhile, knows exactly what he and the Seminoles are going to get come Sunday. He’s seen it before. But, in a sense, he’s also seen it throughout the season.
While players and styles differ from team to team, the Seminoles believe there’s no greater preparation to face a No. 1 seed than to go through to rigors of an ACC slate.
In the last two months, FSU has played six games against top-20 teams, including then-Nos. 4 Duke, and 2 Virginia.
The Musketeers may give the Seminoles a challenge, but they won’t give them a shock.
“We play against this level of competition on a regular basis,” Hamilton said. “I’m hopeful that that will allow our kids to have a certain level of confident maturity, or at least the right mental approach, to understand that this is an ACC-caliber type team, and that we’ve faced them before.”
Mann doubtful, but still ‘wait and see’
Terance Mann, Florida State’s leading scorer and most experienced player, is unlikely to play Sunday after slipping and falling hard on the court at Bridgestone Arena on Friday.
“I don’t expect him to play, unless the doctor comes and tells me something different,” Hamilton said. “But we have to wait and see. I don’t have anything officially I can tell you, other than that he had been bothered by that prior to coming to the tournament.”
Mann averages 12.8 points per game, but, while dealing with his injury, has reached double figures just twice in his last nine games.