TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Leonard Hamilton has been around too long to fall for it.
Yes, the Florida State Seminoles are off to one of the best starts in school history – a 14-2 record, a No. 9 national ranking and a place near the top of all midseason NCAA tournament projections.
And yes, the Virginia Cavaliers, the defending national champions and one of the country’s most consistent programs, are in the midst of an uncharacteristic rough patch. UVA has lost two straight and three of its last five, and is unranked for the first time in 46 weeks.
The surging Seminoles (14-2, 4-1 ACC) host Virginia (11-4, 3-2) on Wednesday night (7 p.m., ESPN2/Westwood One national radio) and, removing the names from the equation, the stage seems set for the home team to have a good night.
But Hamilton knows better than to make any assumptions.
“Virginia is the same Virginia they have been,” he said, noting that the Cavaliers are navigating a new-look roster after losing three players to the NBA draft.
“… But Virginia’s system speaks for itself. They’ve been consistent defensively, they’ve been consistent offensively, and that’s one reason why I think we’ve had some very, very good games with them recently – because of the respect we have for them.”
Game Preview: No. 6 Florida State vs. Virginia
Indeed, despite adjusting to life without stars De’Andre Hunter, Ty Jerome and Kyle Guy, the Cavaliers’ stingy “pack-line” defense has hardly missed a beat.
UVA still ranks first nationally in both scoring defense (48.7 points per game) and field-goal percentage defense (34.6 percent) and four times this season have held an opponent below 40 points.
This Virginia team, though, has had trouble scoring points of its own. With an average of just 55.7 points per game, the Cavaliers rank 348th in the country in that department (out of 350 teams), and they don’t have a single player among the ACC’s top 20 scorers.
That’s not necessarily insurmountable. The Seminoles don’t have any among the top 20, either, but they’ve got three players averaging double figures and six who score at least six points per game. The Cavaliers have four.
And, given UVA’s penchant for playing games in the 40s and 50s, every single point is likely to matter.
“There’s not the many possessions in the game, so it’s definitely different playing against them,” FSU sophomore Devin Vassell said. “But we’re going to come in with the same mindset of trying to turn them over, just get fast-break points and play the FSU way.”
“The FSU way” has been surprisingly effective against the Cavaliers recently.
The Seminoles were the last team to beat UVA on its way to a national title last year, and they did so in emphatic fashion with a 69-59 victory in the ACC tournament semifinal.
FSU is also one of just two teams with a winning record over Virginia in the last five years. Duke is the other.
“They’re well-schooled in their defensive system,” UVA coach Tony Bennett said. “They play it with intensity. They (have) a lot of (similar-sized players) so they can switch, they can pressure the ball. It’s very aggressive with very good scheming. …
“They bother most teams they play, without a doubt.”
Still, the Seminoles aren’t about to let their guard down.
Forrest, the team’s only senior, recalled a cautionary tale from his freshman season that he hopes proves fruitful this week and beyond.
By mid-January 2017, the Seminoles had won 14 of 15 games – including victories over Virginia, Duke and Louisville – and took a No. 6 national ranking into what appeared to be a reprieve game at Georgia Tech.
They then lost, 78-56, and lost again at Syracuse a few days later.
“You can’t get complacent,” Forrest said. “You can’t go from the one that’s doing the hunting to (being) kind of relaxed. I feel like that’s what we did my first couple years. … You’ve got to keep wanting more.”