Feb. 16, 2014
By Bob Thomas, Seminoles.com
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - While most coaches, regardless of sport, profess that all opponents are created equal, that couldn't be further from the truth. This is especially true in college basketball, where who you beat - as long as you're winning with greater frequency than losing - is critical when it comes to landing a spot in the NCAA Tournament.
That is abundantly clear to Florida State men's coach Leonard Hamilton, and his players, who entertain North Carolina Monday night at the Donald L. Tucker Center, in a nationally-televised game (ESPN, 7 p.m.) which carries significant, postseason ramifications.
"Big Monday" takes on a whole new meaning for the Seminoles.
Fresh off Saturday night's 67-60 road win at Wake Forest, the Seminoles (15-10, 6-7 ACC) are battling uphill with five regular season games remaining in their quest for a return trip to the NCAA Tournament. A win over the Tar Heels (17-7, 7-4) would not only get Hamilton's club to .500 in league play, but provide an even greater boost to the Seminoles' resume.
Hamilton won't soft-pedal the magnitude of the moment at hand.
"We know they are loaded with talent," Hamilton said of the Tar Heels. "They always are. They are well-coached and they're always going to have eight or nine McDonald's All-Americans on their team. Now, because of where we are this particular year in the standings, this game takes on an added importance because - believe me - we need as many victories down the stretch as we possibly can."
The Tar Heels represent one of three remaining teams on FSU's regular season schedule - ACC newcomers Pittsburgh and Syracuse are the others - that carry added weight, thanks to their profiles; more commonly referenced as RPI (ratings percentage index) rankings. Whether you subscribe to the RPI formulas of Ken Pomeroy, Warren Nolan, Jeff Sagarin or Joe Lunardi, it does not matter.
Roy Williams' UNC club boasts an RPI ranking of anywhere from 24th to 31st, which is significantly higher than Florida State. The Seminoles currently check in anywhere from 35th (Pomeroy) to 62nd (Warren Nolan).
How much added weight would a win over the Tar Heels be worth?
"1.3 (wins) as a matter of fact," Hamilton said, laughing. "I just kind of have it in the back of my mind."
The Seminoles aren't living in a bubble. They've heard the NCAA Tournament bubble talk and fully understand the importance of finishing with a flurry.
"We're definitely aware, because at the end of the day that's our biggest goal, to make the NCAA Tournament, coming off the NIT last year," said sophomore guard Montay Brandon. "We keep up with that kind of stuff. We are a very confident bunch. We know what we are capable of. We just have to do it on a consistent basis.
"We know we've got to take down people that are going to be in the NCAA Tournament, like North Carolina, Syracuse and Pitt."
And in order to be successful against Roy Williams' team, the `Noles must perform more like they have in their six league wins, limiting opponents to 36.6 percent field goal percentage and 56.5 points, as opposed to the 45.3 percent and 72.1 points they have surrendered in seven ACC losses.
That will require preventing Tar Heel stars James Michael McAdoo (15.3 ppg, 7.0 rpg) and Marcus Paige (17.1 ppg, 4.5 apg) from taking over the game.
Given the Tar Heels' penchant for pushing the pace early and often, the Seminoles can't afford to fall too far behind. FSU managed to dig out of a 16-point, first half deficit in its win over Wake Forest, but a slow start against UNC could be far more problematic.
"That is one of our struggles, being down early and not making shots early," said sophomore Aaron Thomas. "In the second half of the Wake Forest game, with us coming out with energy, playing hard, it was like, `Where has that been?' We have to come out with that energy and aggression against North Carolina."
"I know it should be that way every game, but tomorrow we should definitely come out there focused and ready to play, because we know we can be embarrassed on ESPN pretty bad," Brandon added. "We've got to go out there and be ready to play from the get-go."
Like FSU, North Carolina is coming off a Saturday game. The Tar Heels defeated No. 25 Pittsburgh, 75-71, for their sixth straight victory. That was the first of four games over an eight-day stretch for UNC, which will include a make-up date with Duke on Thursday.
"There is nothing helpful about a short turnaround," Hamilton said. "You can sugar-coat it any way you want to. We got back in at 2 o'clock in the morning, but we all have to go through it. It's just part of college basketball. I'm sure we'll be as prepared as most teams are.
"You expect that, you plan for it and you try and teach your kids that it's just part of the game and you don't worry about it. Once they throw the ball up, I'm not sure it matters."
What does matter is that the Seminoles are as mentally prepared as possible for a game with huge stakes. Hamilton liked the body language he saw and the way his team communicated when it fell behind by 16 at Wake Forest. FSU responded by outscoring the Demon Deacons 55-34 over the final 26 minutes for their third league road win.
"That was the first time that I felt that they were beyond that and didn't allow the lack of success on the offensive end to affect them negatively," he said.
Whether that's a sign of growing maturing, or not, remains to be seen. Regardless, Hamilton won't down-play the magnitude of Monday night's encounter.
"You just be matter-of-fact; you be factual and honest and deal with it for what it is," hesaid. "Everybody knows they're the third-winningest program in college basketball. They're going to get the proper respect, but I'm more concerned about our approach, not necessarily who we're playing. I've tried to develop that type of mentality with our players. ...
"The most important thing is we know who we are and we have to come as close as we can to maximizing our talents. Hopefully, because it's North Carolina, we'll be a little more motivated and focused."