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THE BIG PREVIEW: Florida State vs. Virginia

The Noles come into Charlottesville for a top ten matchup to kick off ACC play.

NCAA Basketball: Winthrop at Florida State Melina Myers-USA TODAY Sports

The No. 4 Virginia Cavaliers completed their non-conference schedule with 12 wins in 12 tries. That’s perfect. Now, they get into conference play, which will be much tougher. Right now on KenPom, there are six ACC teams in the top 25 and nine in the top 50. In all, 11 of 18 conference games are considered “Tier A” games by KenPom. That’s not going to be easy.

Things begin with Florida State coming to town on Saturday afternoon. The Seminoles are one of those top 25 teams, currently ranking 18th in KenPom and 9th in the AP Poll. They’re 12-1, with their lone loss coming to Villanova in the AdvoCare Invitational, which is apparently a thing. Their best wins are home wins over Florida and Purdue. Considering Purdue is 8-5 and UF is 8-4 — and neither of them have really beaten anybody — I think it’s fair to question that 18th ranking.

Perhaps most impressive about FSU’s performance is that they’ve done it largely without last year’s leading scorer Phil Cofer. The fifth year senior missed the first nine games with a foot injury and has only really gotten back into the rotation over the past two games. He scored 14 on Tuesday against Winthrop in his first start, making 3-of-5 from downtown. Cofer is 6’8, 230, but his biggest impact on the Noles might be his outside shooting.

His entrance into the starting lineup moved sophomore M.J. Walker to the bench. Walker was a 5-star recruit last year, but had an underwhelming year. He took far too many threes, making under 35% of them, struggled defensively, and didn’t provide much else. This year, he’s up to 42% from three, but is still taking too many of them. He remains under 40% from the field, and it’s tough to be an asset with that kind of performance.

FSU remains one of the biggest teams in the nation. Just one player on the roster is under 6’4 and seven are 6’8 or above. That includes 7’4 Christ Koumadje, one of the tallest players in college basketball this year. Koumadje has mostly had trouble staying on the floor because of foul trouble. He’s also not much of an offensive threat.

This is pretty much what he does offensively:

And, this is what happens when he tries to do too much. That’s a 7’4 guy being rejected by a 6’9 guy.

His minutes and his offense are up so far this year, but both of those may drop in conference play. There isn’t an obvious spot for him against Virginia, who don’t have an interior offensive presence and don’t tend to give up a ton of offensive rebounds.

That probably means extra playing time for Mfiondu Kabengele, a 6’10 sophomore that began to come on late last year. He saw just 10 minutes in last year’s Virginia game, but had six points and six rebounds. He leads the team in usage rate by a wide margin. Kabengele is second on the team in scoring and FGA despite averaging just 18 minutes, and he is the nephew of NBA legend Dikembe Mutombo.

The most interesting thing about FSU right now is their depth. Eleven players average over 10 minutes per game (seven for the Hoos). Some of that is due to Cofer’s injury, but not all of it. With Cofer back, the Noles have a veteran starting five with four seniors and a junior. The second unit consists of a bunch of youngsters, including Kabengele, Walker, and a trio of freshmen (two of whom are redshirts). It remains to be seen how much run those guys will get in ACC play and with Cofer back. Only Anthony Polite saw real action in the Noles’ 11-point win over Winthrop on Tuesday.

They struggled a bit with Winthrop, who play the Pack Line Defense. They led by 16 at halftime, but let the Eagles back in and led by only two at the under-12 timeout and three at the under-8.

The Noles don’t truly press, but they generate a lot of steals (26th in the nation) because of their length. They play a pressure defense, but if you can spread the floor, there are options available in the middle.

That’s too easy for Winthrop against a team as good as FSU. Winthrop had far too many easy baskets in the half-court, especially early in the game.

With Cofer out, Terance Mann has been leading the way with 13 points per game. Against Winthrop, he had 22 on 10-for-11 shooting. He’s shooting 43% on threes, but is far more dangerous off the bounce and in transition. At 6’7, 215, he’s a perfect matchup for DeAndre Hunter. Mann is a talented scorer, but so is Hunter, and DeAndre is a much better defender. That matchup could very well decide the outcome of this game.

If Hunter is on Mann, then expect Braxton Key on Cofer. Cofer is also a poor defender, so maybe this is the game for Key to break out offensively. With both Hunter and Key in there, there might not be as much run for Kihei Clark. Starting PG Trent Forrest is 6’4, 210 and just might be too strong for Clark. He can’t shoot (just 18% career from three), but he’s very good at using his size to get inside and draw contact. He’s shooting over 50% from the field and over 80% from the line. Forrest is also a strong defender, as is starting shooting guard P.J. Savoy. Savoy is a 37% career three-point shooter, but has made just over 30% this year. If he’s still not hitting, look for Albany graduate transfer David Nichols to take his place. Nichols is a shooter (42% so far), but not much else.

The Seminoles have an advantage on the inside. But Virginia’s interior defenders (Jack Salt and Mamadi Diakite) are among the best at their job in the nation. And getting buckets inside isn’t easy against the Pack Line. Last year, the Noles shot 48% from inside, but just 6-for-20 (30%) from beyond the arc. They do not want to be shooting 44% of their shots from outside. They have more shooters this year than they did last year, and they’ll have to knock down some outside shots. That will loosen up the interior defense and open up some driving lanes.

Virginia is much better on the perimeter than FSU is. Two years ago, when FSU upset the Hoos at JPJ, they shot 8-for-15 from 3 (most of that was Dwayne Bacon). They grabbed 30% of their own offensive boards and shot 24 free throws versus just five for the Hoos. That’s domination inside. But the outside shooting allowed that to happen.

FSU’s lone loss this year came to Villanova, who also are playing very slow this year. They made it into a half-court game, which really hurt FSU’s offense. The Wildcats made just 3-for-14 from downtown, but FSU was just 3-for-12. So even though FSU was better inside, they couldn’t really take advantage. FSU should be able to dominate in the paint, but if they don’t shoot the ball well enough from outside it may not matter.

Tip off is 3pm and the game will be broadcast on ESPN2.