March 28, 2019 - by
Noles, Bulldogs Renew Unlikely Rivalry In Sweet 16

WATCH: Noles prepare to meet Gonzaga in Sweet 16

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ANAHEIM, Calif. – Same opponent, same round and nearly the same location.

It’s not hard to spot the similarities between Florida State’s run to this year’s Sweet 16 and the one it enjoyed last season.

And the biggest similarity, the Seminoles hope, will be reserved for Thursday evening.

A little more than a year after beating Gonzaga in the 2018 NCAA West region semifinal in Los Angeles, the Seminoles will look to do it again on Thursday, when they meet the Bulldogs about 30 miles down Interstate 5 at the Honda Center in Anaheim (7:09 p.m., CBS).

“The stars have aligned,” FSU’s Mfiondu Kabengele said. “We saw them last year and we’re going to see them again. It’s familiar territory.”

For a pair of schools separated by more than 2,500 miles, tournament games between the Seminoles and Bulldogs have been surprisingly common.

They first met in a first-round game in 2010 (Gonzaga won, 67-60), then again in the Sweet 16 last year in Los Angeles (FSU won, 75-60).

The third meeting might have the highest stakes of any so far. Although they’re playing in the same round as a year ago, both the No. 1-seeded Bulldogs and the No. 4 Seminoles have higher seeds and higher aspirations this time around.

No, the NCAA didn’t purposefully set up an FSU-Gonzaga rematch. But when the bracket came out two weeks ago, it wasn’t hard to envision it.

“For some reason, the NCAA people, they think that’s a good matchup, I guess,” FSU assistant Stan Jones said with a smile.

“It’s definitely familiar,” FSU senior Terance Mann said. “I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this happened.”

Both FSU and Gonzaga have different teams than the ones that played in Los Angeles – the Seminoles said goodbye to a senior and two transfers, while the Bulldogs lost former standout Johnathan Williams, now with the NBA’s Lakers.

Still, FSU coach Leonard Hamilton and Gonzaga’s Mark Few admitted Wednesday that last year’s matchup can’t help but inform their preparations.

Whether it’s enough to create an advantage, though, is hard to say.

“I think it’s helpful, somewhat,” Hamilton said. “We’ll be familiar with Gonzaga, a little bit. They’ll be familiar with us. So I think it evens itself out.”

“Playing them last year, I think, really helps us – at least at this point,” Few said. “We will find out more tomorrow night.”

If nothing else, the Seminoles are familiar with Gonzaga enough to know that they’ll be in for a challenge on Thursday.

The Bulldogs are 32-3, spent two weeks with a No. 1 national ranking and, in the crown jewel of their regular season, beat Duke at the Maui Invitational in November.

And, as usual, Gonzaga dominated its competition in the West Coast Conference, going undefeated in league play before falling to St. Mary’s in the WCC tournament title game.

The Bulldogs boast four first-team All-WCC selections (junior forwards Brandon Clarke and Rui Hachimura, sophomore guard Zach Norvell Jr., and senior guard Josh Perkins), as well as the WCC player of the year (Hachimura) defensive player of the year (Clarke), newcomer of the year (Clarke) and coach of the year (Few).

Gonzaga is also in its fifth straight Sweet 16, and two years ago made its first ever national championship game.

“No one on the west coast has enjoyed that level of success (out west) since (UCLA) coach (John) Wooden was here,” Hamilton said. “And we all know he was the most dominant figure in college basketball since the beginning of the game, and then Coach Few is number two.

“He has a culture. They have a system and we know it’s going to be a tremendous challenge.”

The Seminoles, ranked as high as No. 9 this season, on Thursday said that Gonzaga runs a fast-paced, aggressive style that’s reminiscent of the North Carolina Tar Heels.

The Bulldogs have a pair of dominant post players – Hachimura (20.1 points per game, 6.6 rebounds per game) and Clarke (17.0, 8.4) – and a senior point guard (Perkins, 6.4 assists per game) who knows how to find them.

And when they’re not channeling their half-court offense through their big men, the Bulldogs like to score quick baskets in transition while crashing the offensive glass.

“It’s definitely going to be an up-tempo game,” FSU forward RaiQuan Gray said. “They play a high-low (offense), just like North Carolina. … They definitely get up and down the court just like North Carolina.”

FSU also figures to face a motivated opponent on Thursday.

When the Seminoles eliminated top-seeded Xavier in last year’s round of 32, it blew the NCAA west region wide open, and the fourth-seeded Bulldogs had designs on taking advantage.

It didn’t work out that way.

Behind 18 points and five rebounds from Mann, the No. 9-seed Seminoles surged past the Bulldogs for a 75-60 win that put them on the brink of the Final Four.

Neither team has forgotten about it in the year that’s followed.

“We didn’t show them the real Gonzaga last year,” said junior Killian Tillie, who missed that game with an injury. “It’s going to be a very different team this year.”

“They’ve been waiting a year for this,” Kabengele said. “So we understand that they’re ready to play us, and we’re ready as well.”

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