So much has changed since the Michigan men’s basketball team last faced Florida State in the NCAA Tournament — a 58-54 victory for the Wolverines in the 2018 Elite Eight.
Three years later, the two teams meet again, this time in the Sweet Sixteen. On the current rosters, only Michigan’s senior wing Isaiah Livers — who is still sidelined due to injury — and Florida State’s senior guard M.J. Walker saw the court in the game. Even the coaching matchup has changed considerably, now featuring long-time Seminoles’ coach Leonard Hamilton and Juwan Howard instead of John Beilein.
To reach this point, the one-seed Wolverines had to outlast a high-scoring LSU team, while four-seed Florida State comfortably dispatched Colorado in the Round of 32. Given the two teams’ similar profiles, many experts think Sunday’s game could be a cagey, close affair.
To learn more about this year’s iteration of the Seminoles and which team might have the upper hand come Sunday afternoon and move one step closer to the Final Four, The Daily spoke with Curt Weiler, who covers the team for the Tallahassee Democrat.
The Michigan Daily: Why is Florida State a Sweet Sixteen team?
Curt Weiler: “It’s interesting. It’s kinda a two-part answer. They really got to where they are as a 4-seed again despite losing all they did off last year’s team because they’re a really strong offensive team. This is, I want to say, the most offensively efficient team that Leonard Hamilton has ever had and I know they’re the best 3-point shooting team he’s ever had. That really makes up for the fact that they struggle with turnovers.
“But if you’re talking about what got them through the first weekend of the tournament it was really high-level defense. They didn’t hit a three in their NCAA Tournament opener against UNC-Greensboro. They really just grinded out the game on the defensive end and made it hard for them. Obviously, it makes sense that you can do that against a team like Greensboro that’s probably going to be a bit undersized and not have the same level of talent. But it was the same against Colorado, they just made things really hard on McKinley Wright IV. I think he only had one assist and five turnovers. The Seminoles had a better offensive game against Colorado, but if they hadn’t played the level of defense that they had, truthfully — they’ve had some defensive inconsistency throughout the year — they wouldn’t have made it to the Sweet Sixteen.”
TMD: Given the departures from last season, would you say the Seminoles have exceeded preseason expectations so far?
Weiler: “Yeah, I would say they have. Yes, they brought in a five-star guy in Scottie Barnes and a highly-regarded JUCO transfer in Sardaar Calhoun. But when you lose two top-11 picks and then also Trent Forrest, who was the winningest player in program history, I thought they were a tournament team but I did not see them being a four-seed. If you had asked me before the start of the season, I would have said they would end up in the seven to eight-seed range probably.
“RaiQuan Gray is a guy who’s really taken a big leap. Anthony Polite has taken a big leap. Balsa Koprivica has taken a big leap. So a number of those guys who have progressed and obviously, Scottie Barnes is — he’s not the type of player who takes over games and is very ball-dominant — but you see the potential in him and he’s definitely had moments where he looks the part. They’ve definitely exceeded my expectations.”
TMD: What role has Scottie Barnes played in Florida State’s success and what role do you think he’ll play on Sunday?
Weiler: “He had a number of offers from high-profile programs but a big part of why he came to FSU (was to run the offense). … Maybe not a true point guard because he’s 6-foot-9, he doesn’t really fit the traditional point guard role, but Leonard Hamilton and his staff have let him be a player who’s on the ball a lot. He’s a pretty remarkable passer for his size. He definitely passes like a point guard. He’s had turnovers like any point guard does and he’s struggled more with those lately but he’s a remarkable passer. The jumpshot, he doesn’t test a ton. He doesn’t take a lot of jump shots, but he attacks the basket really well. It’ll be interesting to see how he does that against Michigan’s size inside.
“Defensively, he’s a guy — obviously Florida State switches everything so you’re not going to have a true matchup where he’ll be on the point guard or whoever all the time, but he commits to the defense. Florida State’s not going to take on a guy that isn’t going to commit to their defensive scheme and he really has. His frame on players that are typically smaller than him wreaks havoc.”
TMD: Who is Florida State’s offensive catalyst?
Weiler: “It was Anthony Polite in the Colorado game. He really took that game over when they weren’t getting much offensively. But for the majority of the season, it’s actually been RaiQuan Gray. He’s a 6-foot-8 forward but he actually does a lot of ball-handling. Florida State kinda goes by a “Big Guard U” mantra by letting guys like Scottie Barnes and RaiQuan Gray handle the ball a lot. RaiQuan, after a slower start to the season, has been by far FSU’s most consistent player this calendar year. He’s scored in double digits in all but three games since mid-January.”
TMD: How do you assess their ability to deal with Hunter Dickinson down low?
Weiler: “It’s an interesting situation. I kinda see that as the matchup that’s going to determine the game. Florida State has a 7-footer of its own in Balsa Koprivica. He’s a sophomore who’s really come on of late. He got in foul trouble early in the Colorado game and didn’t play a ton of minutes, but in the three games before, in the two ACC Tournament games, he had double-doubles in both of them and was one rebound short of a double-double against UNC-Greensboro. He has definitely held his own. He came in last season as a pretty well-regarded guy. Not in Dickinson’s sphere by any means, but still a pretty highly-regarded recruit. You’ve seen his potential. He’s played his way to a point where it’s possible he could be exploring his pro options after this season, which I would say wasn’t expected to be the case entering ACC play this year. He’s come on really strong. The biggest thing for him, as with a lot of bigs, is that he can encounter some foul trouble.
“(The Seminoles) can sometimes go to a small lineup where they put a guy like Malik Osborne at center or even a RaiQuan Gray, but the true backup center they have is Tanor Ngom, who doesn’t play a ton of minutes. He’s a transfer from a Canadian school and is definitely not ready to handle a matchup like Dickinson. The key to Florida State is how many players they play. They talk about how they can kinda ‘exert all-out’ because they give guys breaks. They’re not expected to play 34 minutes a game or anything like that. If they can keep Koprivica on the court, then I think FSU will be in okay shape. It’s probably one of the tougher matchups he’s faced this year, although he has faced some other teams with good bigs like North Carolina.”
TMD: How would you describe Koprivica’s game?
Weiler: “He’s a guy who can do it all frankly. When you’re playing a team like Florida State that switches everything, there are times where he ends up covering a point guard defensively and is able to do that decently well, like he did against McKinley Wright. In terms of inside, he’s shown the midrange (jumpshot) some but he’s a guy who can definitely post-up, bang down there and is not afraid to get physical. Some of it will obviously come down to how the game is officiated, but he can do it all really. I mean he has one 3 this year, so that’s not really part of his game, but he might come out to the perimeter to draw the defender out and free up the paint for others. It will be interesting to see how him and Dickinson kinda match up in that regard.”
TMD: What has Florida State’s biggest weakness been this season?
Weiler: “Probably turning the ball over. Especially with how consistent the defense has been lately. It’s pretty remarkable that they almost won the ACC Championship game against Georgia Tech … they turned it over 25 times. That speaks to how, when they don’t turn the ball over, elite an offensive team they can be. They shoot really well from three, similar to Michigan in terms of the numbers. But yeah, they can have turnover issues. I think they turned it over seven times in the opening 10 minutes of the Colorado game and then only eight the rest of the way, which kinda saved them.”
“They’ve had some guys dealing with injuries which has played into it especially lately. They trust a lot of guys to handle those duties, which could play a role in it. Some of the turnover issues could also be attributed to playing teams like Georgia Tech or North Carolina that are going to make it hard on you defensively. But they’ve just been careless with the ball at times too. I think some of it could be attributed to how many different guys they have filling that point guard role.”
Weiler: “I’m still sorting that out myself. It’s a tough one. It’s a game I could truly see going either way. I would not be as inclined to say that with what seems to be the status of Isaiah Livers. Obviously, when you have two teams with similar 3-point profiles but then you take away one team’s best 3-point shooter, that changes things a bit. I still, at this point, am leaning Michigan in a pretty close game but I wouldn’t be surprised at all if this is a game that goes to overtime or if it’s a game that FSU wins.
“For FSU, there are probably only a couple of players who were on that team three years ago that lost to Michigan in the Elite Eight but I’m sure that’s still on some of their minds.”