The Virginia Cavaliers Men’s basketball team is back in action with a Saturday night matchup in Tallahassee against the Florida State Seminoles. The Seminoles (13-9, 7-4) have been one of the bigger surprises in the ACC this year, playing much better than their preseason expectations. But Virginia (18-5, 9-3) is the hottest team in the conference, winners of seven straight games including three straight on the road.
In 22 head-to-head matchups over the last 14 seasons, Tony Bennett and Leonard Hamilton are dead even against each other with 11 wins each. The winner of this game will be one step closer towards the coveted double-bye in the ACC Tournament, and Florida State desperately needs to keep winning to have any chance of hearing their name called on Selection Sunday.
Here are three players to watch, two essential matchups, and one prediction for Saturday night’s game at Florida State.
Game Time: Saturday, February 10, 8PM Eastern
TV: The CW
3 Players to Watch
The 6’7 transfer from VCU leads the Seminoles in points, rebounds, and assists per game (13.7, 5.8, 2.8). Watkins is an athletic, slashing wing, who embraces contact on drives and finishes with skill at the rim. Florida State loves to run in transition, and Watkins is a dangerous rim-runner who emphatically dunks on fast breaks.
About last night pic.twitter.com/gM5MpndrFl— Florida State Men’s Basketball (@FSUHoops) January 18, 2024
He’s got a whole series of clips like this, enough to earn a nomination if there was an ACC dunk contest (Ryan Dunn is obviously my first choice).
Watkins presents a difficult matchup for any ACC team, because he has remarkable size and strength for a guy that’s just the third-tallest player in the starting lineup. This gives Leonard Hamilton’s team a strategic edge, as teams are often forced to guard Watkins with defenders who are giving up a few inches and 20 or more pounds, like Syracuse’s Judah Mintz on this play:
Florida State’s senior sharpshooter has hit 54 three-pointers this year at a solid 39.1% clip. He excels in catch-and-shoot situations, with a quick trigger and an impressive ability to square himself up towards the basket even at tricky angles.
Green was the lone bright spot in a road loss against the Cavaliers last year, scoring 17 points and connecting on 3 of his 5 three-point tries. He may be matching up against Isaac McKneely for much of the game, presenting a compelling shooting battle that could be pivotal in a close game.
In typical Leonard Hamilton fashion, Florida State brings one of their best scorers and playmakers off the bench. Primo Spears, a transfer guard out of Georgetown, backs up point guard Jalen Warley, but he averages more minutes and points than the starter.
Spears will not hesitate on pull-up mid-range jumpers. He’s smooth operating in pick-and-rolls, taking advantage against drop-coverage in plays like this one against UNC.
Spears will face a fair-share of Dante Harris and Reece Beekman, not too appealing for a volume based scorer who struggles to shoot efficiently. However, if the ‘Hoos are too keyed-in on Florida State’s other star wings, Spears will make them pay.
2 Key Matchups
The Height Disparity
Florida State is the tallest team in the ACC. They start three players above 6’7, and their shortest rotation piece is still 6’3. The bulk of their rotation consists of long, athletic wings and forwards.
On the other hand, Virginia’s a much smaller team, with their tallest starters checking in at 6’8. This will create several difficult matchups for the ‘Hoos, such as 6’6, 185lb Andrew Rohde versus 6’7, 210lb Jamir Watkins, or potentially Reece Beekman or Isaac McKneely on 6’5 Darin Green.
Fortunately, Bennett’s tested out an all-height lineup in recent games, featuring Ryan Dunn defending the 3 man, and Jake Groves in to play stretch 4 with Jordan Minor or Blake Buchanan at the 5. I’m curious to see how much Bennett utilizes this lineup, which has proven to be successful in limited samples over the past few games. Alternatively, if Virginia sticks with their usual rotation, they may struggle to create open shots against the Seminoles rangy, heavy ball-pressure defense.
The specific rotations deployed by each coach should be a fascinating chess match to watch between the two longest tenured coaches in the ACC.
Pace of Play
Virginia wants to slow the game down no matter who they’re playing. It’s what Tony Bennett does, it’s what he has always done, and it works more often than not. The Cavaliers come into this game averaging the slowest tempo in Division 1, while Florida State’s one of the fastest-paced teams in the country, averaging a quick 16 seconds per possession.
Florida State always sports one of the deepest player rotations in college basketball. They have 9 players averaging at least 14 minutes of playing time, and they’ll often play 10 or more players even in close games. Frequent subbing enables the Seminoles to consistently play at a fast pace, because they always have fresh legs to enter the game when needed.
So far this season, Virginia’s been very successful at imposing their tempo on their opponents. Team’s average 19.2 seconds per possession against Virginia, the slowest in the nation. This trend will need to continue against Florida State, who will apply tons of pressure on defense, looking to force turnovers leading to easy transition buckets. If the ‘Hoos can make it a half-court game, they’ll be in better shape to win a classic, defensive-oriented low-scoring affair.
Florida State’s exceeded expectations this year in ACC play, currently sitting at 5th in the conference with a 7-4 record. They matchup well against Virginia historically, and after a few messy years with transfers and injuries, it seems that Leonard Hamilton has his team humming like they used to.
Nevertheless, the Cavaliers are the hottest team in the ACC right now, and with a long week to prepare, I expect Tony Bennett to come in with a good game plan in this complicated matchup of contrasting styles. I think Virginia makes Florida State uncomfortable, forcing them into many low-percentage shots against the Pack Line. The ‘Hoos should extend their winning streak to eight games after a tight, ugly dog-fight.
Prediction: Virginia 65, Florida State 60