ANAHEIM, Calif. – This time around, Gonzaga knows what its up against.
It doesn’t necessarily make the task any easier, but the Zags understand Florida State’s collection of size, length and athleticism. The Seminoles rival GU early-season foes Duke, North Carolina and Tennessee – not with player of the year candidates or top NBA draft prospects – but the volume of potential difference-makers in an 11-man rotation.
Gonzaga experienced it firsthand a year ago. The Seminoles hounded Gonzaga’s offense into a season-low for points and their depth wore down the Zags in a 75-60 Sweet 16 victory at the Staples Center in Los Angeles.
“They’re big, tall, long arms,” Zags sophomore wing Corey Kispert said. “Last year we were kind of taken by surprise, but having that game under our belts we know what to expect.”
That works both ways, of course. The Sweet 16 rematch unfolds Thursday at the Honda Center and both teams have improved since that meeting last March.
“I feel like with this team and Gonzaga, the stars aligned and you could say we kind of saw the matchup lining up on Selection Sunday,” FSU forward Mfiondu Kabengele said. “We understand their offense and they understand our offense and defense.”
The fourth-seeded Seminoles (29-7) clearly had the better understanding a year ago. Gonzaga, though, has a different look this time around with Brandon Clarke making a huge impact at both ends of the floor, Rui Hachimura blossoming into an All-American and Killian Tillie in the rotation.
Top-seeded Gonzaga (32-3) is deeper and more athletic than its 2018 team.
“They were physical against us and I feel like we struggled with that,” said Clarke, who watched the game on television in Spokane while he was sitting out one season under NCAA rules after transferring from San Jose State. “I feel like we were just content to make it there (to the Sweet 16) last year. This year I feel like we have bigger goals.”
Tillie missed last year’s contest with a hip injury. The Seminoles won’t be at full strength Thursday. Senior forward Phil Cofer, a veteran of 84 starts and 133 career games, is with his family in Georgia after his father, Mike, died last Thursday.
Florida State’s smallest projected starter is 6-foot-5, 210-pound Trent Forrest. The frontcourt includes 7-4 center Christ Koumadje and Cofer’s replacement RaiQuan Gray, 6-8 and 260.
The 6-10 Kabengele doesn’t start, in part to keep him from getting into foul trouble, but he produces a team-high 13.4 points per game. Terance Mann, a versatile 6-7 wing who torched Gonzaga for 18 points, is next at 11.6 points per game.
Kabengele and Mann have combined to average 40 points and 16.5 rebounds in two NCAA Tournament wins.
It’s a heavyweight battle, but it might not be decided by the tale of the tape.
“North Carolina was a big team, Tennessee of course,” Tillie said, “but it’s going to be about toughness, not about height and size.”
FSU plays the same adhesive, disruptive defense to go with an offense that ranks 28th nationally, according to KenPom. The Seminoles have had nine leading scorers, which lines up with Leonard Hamilton’s coaching strategy.
“We had to develop a system that allowed us to compete,” said Hamilton, referring to his coaching stops in the Big Eight (which morphed into the Big 12), Big East and ACC. “We feel that we need to win games by committee, to have the full sum of all of our parts working together.”
The Seminoles should feel comfortable playing in the Anaheim Ducks’ home arena. They often make hockey-like line changes, subbing five players in at a time.
“I’ve never really seen anything like that in college basketball with that many subs or that many rotations,” Kispert said. “But like we’ve said all year long, it’s not really about what they do, it’s about what we do and how we play our game.”
Florida State finished fourth in the rugged ACC, which produced three No. 1 seeds and five teams in the Sweet 16. After facing Gonzaga, the Seminoles will have played all four No. 1 seeds. They’re 1-4, with the lone victory over Virginia in the ACC Tournament, but they’ve defeated six conference champions.
If the Zags want to avoid becoming No. 7, they’ll have to “bring the fight to them,” sophomore wing Zach Norvell Jr. said.
And some attitude.
“They try to frustrate you, but we’re a different team (than last year). A lot more depth, a lot more experience, just a lot more pieces,” point guard Josh Perkins said. “We’ve got more chips on our shoulders. As BC (Clarke) said, we were kind of content making it to the Sweet 16 last year, but this year (the) championship has always been the goal.”
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