Florida State’s ugly loss at Notre Dame raises questions about its ceiling in March

Notre Dame beat FSU 83-73 Saturday for its first win over a ranked team since 2017
Notre Dame beat FSU 83-73 Saturday for its first win over a ranked team since 2017(WCTV)
Published: Mar. 7, 2021 at 8:14 AM EST
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The most difficult part of the schedule was already behind Florida State as it entered its final regular-season game Saturday. Leonard Hamilton’s bunch had put itself in an excellent position to claim its second consecutive regular-season title after a dominant win over Virginia back on Feb. 15.

Even with a loss at North Carolina exactly one week before Saturday, the Seminoles controlled their own destiny. All they had to do was win at Notre Dame, which had lost four in a row and had been near the bottom of the ACC all year. How hard could that be, right?

Well, as so frequently happens in college basketball, Florida State’s afternoon transpired in a way nobody saw coming.

The Seminoles lost 83-73 at Notre Dame and looked completely flat on both sides of the ball for most of the afternoon.

“You’ve got to give Notre Dame a lot of credit. I thought they played the kind of ball today that has given us some problems throughout the year,” Hamilton said after the game. “They really did a great job of executing.

With Virginia winning at Louisville a couple of hours later, the Cavaliers supplanted Florida State on the final day of the regular season to steal the conference title. Virginia will be the No. 1 seed in the ACC Tournament and Florida State will settle for the No. 2 seed.

There is really no other way to describe it. Saturday was an inexcusable loss for Florida State, arguably its most puzzling defeat of the season. The Seminoles never led in the game.

The Irish outscored FSU by 16 points in the first half, as a result of nine Florida State turnovers, compounded with some poor shooting and uncharacteristically poor defense.

Florida State had been a dominant first-half team all season. The only other time it had been outscored in the first 20 minutes of a game was against Georgia Tech by eight points back on Jan. 30.

Georgia Tech is likely going to be playing in the NCAA Tournament though. Notre Dame, conversely, had not beaten a ranked opponent since 2017.

Florida State played like a team taking its opponent lightly, which is natural against an inferior team. However, one would think that with a conference title and No. 1 seed in the ACC Tournament on the line should have provided extra motivation.

“The bottom line is I just thought Notre Dame did a better job of playing to their strengths and they exploited our weaknesses,” Hamilton said.

Since Florida State joined the ACC in 1992, it had never won back-to-back regular-season titles. Saturday was an opportunity to further establish itself as one of the best programs in the country not known as a traditional blue blood.

There is still a lot of basketball to be played, but Saturday wasn’t just simply a loss that can be swept under the rug as an off day. For as good as Florida State has looked at times this season, there have been a few other very discouraging performances like Saturday.

The Seminoles are a streaky team that looks like a national title contender on their best days, but they also have the floor of a first or second-round NCAA Tournament exit. That lack of consistency usually isn’t a recipe for success in March.

“Sometimes you have to learn how to handle these situations when they arise,” Hamilton said during his press conference. “Hopefully we will learn from it.”

After Saturday, it may be time to start asking how far this Florida State team can realistically go in March.

Here are a few other observations from Saturday’s game.

Backcourt sputters

RayQuan Evans had basically no impact on the game in his 31 minutes. He scored just two points on 0-of-4 shooting and looked invisible on the offensive end all afternoon.

Additionally, just by looking at the box score, M.J. Walker didn’t appear to have a horrible day. However, Saturday might have been his worst all-around game of the season.

Yes, he had 12 points, but he needed 16 shots to get there, and he shot just 2-of-10 from 3-point range. Other than Evans, Walker’s true shooting percentage (33%) and effective field-goal percentage (31%) were the lowest of any Florida State player who played more than 10 minutes.

Despite his struggles shooting the ball, Walker still attempted a team-high 38% of Florida State’s shots, many of which were highly contested.

After an excellent shooting game against Boston College where he scored 18 points on 6-of-9 3-point shooting, Walker forced a lot of low-percentage shots.

It seemed like once Florida State got down big, he kept trying to shift all the momentum back to the Seminoles with one big shot instead of staying within the offense and chipping away by working to get high-quality looks on each possession.

Florida State’s defense as a whole wasn’t good for most of the game, but Walker and Evans particularly got torched on that end. They consistently allowed Notre Dame’s guards to penetrate and either finish at the rim or kick out to open shooters.

Those two combined were responsible for an estimated 29.2 points allowed.

In Evans’ 31 minutes, Notre Dame scored 131.8 points per 100 possessions. With Walker on the court, the Irish scored 136.8 points per 100 possessions in 26 minutes.

Florida State simply needs more from both of them if it hopes to make a run in the postseason.

Turnovers a major issue once again

Turnovers have been arguably Florida State’s biggest problem all season and Saturday was no different. The Seminoles coughed up the ball 14 more times against Notre Dame, nine of which came in the first half. Those nine turnovers came from seven different players.

That allowed Notre Dame to outscore Florida State 11-0 on the fast break in the opening period.

FSU did a better job in the second half, committing only five turnovers in the final 20 minutes. Taking better care of the ball allowed them to get back in the game, but the first-half hole they created with turnovers was too much to overcome.

Florida State finished the regular season with an average of 13.6 turnovers per game. That ranks 195th in the country.

If Florida State is eliminated from the NCAA Tournament earlier than expected, turnovers will likely be a major culprit. Barring some miracle, the chances of FSU suddenly correcting this season-long issue in the postseason is slim.

Small-ball lineup more effective

Hamilton made an interesting decision in the second half that helped Florida State make things more interesting late.

Rather than keeping Balsa Koprivica at the center spot to start the second half, Hamilton inserted Scottie Barnes in his spot alongside Evans, Walker, Barnes and Gray. Going smaller allowed FSU to do a much better job defending Notre Dame’s guards off the dribble. In the second half, Notre Dame shot just 36% from the field, including 2-of-9 on 3s.

Barnes was excellent, scoring a career-high 17 points and posting a stingy 87.7 defensive rating. Gray also scored 15 points, his 12th straight game in double figures, before fouling out. He also posted a 96.4 defensive rating Saturday. The rest of the team did not have a strong defensive game.

As much as Evans and Walker struggled defensively, Koprivica and Tanor Ngom were the most vulnerable at that end of the court Saturday. In 11 combined first-half minutes, Notre Dame averaged 136.8 points per 100 possessions when one of those two were on the court.

Neither of them played a single minute in the second half. In fact, only three players (Malik Osborne, Wyatt Wilkes and Sardaar Calhoun) came off the bench in the second half, and they played only 14 minutes combined.

Hamilton typically relies on a 10-man rotation with minutes that are mostly evenly distributed, but he went starters-heavy in the second half of Saturday.

Notre Dame was just a bad matchup for Florida State’s two seven-footers. The Irish often ran a five-out, dribble-drive-oriented attack that pulled Koprivica and Ngom out of the paint and forced them to defend smaller players on the perimeter.

As impressive as Koprivica has been switching out onto smaller players in pick-and-roll situations throughout the season, having him to defend the perimeter for an entire game is a tough ask.

Koprivica has been exposed a bit defensively over the last couple of weeks. The size of North Carolina overwhelmed him down low last weekend and the smaller Notre Dame lineup Saturday made him almost unplayable.

It will be interesting to see if Hamilton uses a rotation similar to Saturday’s second half if Florida State runs into a smaller team like Notre Dame in the postseason.

That will create some concerns though. While Florida State was much better defensively with that lineup in the second half, it eliminated the Seminoles’ depth, which has been one of their greatest strengths. Relying heavily on five to seven players for a full game rather than 10 will be extremely difficult in the NCAA Tournament.

Road shooting concerns

Below are some numbers that might concern Florida State fans. The Seminoles shot just 6-of-24 on 3s Saturday, adding to a trend of poor shooting on the road. Even after that, the Seminoles still finished the regular season first in the ACC (seventh nationally) in 3-point shooting at 39.2%.

However, the home-road splits in this area are fascinating. The Seminoles have been lights out from beyond the arc in their 13 games at the Tucker Center, but the seven games away from home have been vastly different.

  • Home: 123-for-289 (42.6%)
  • Road: 45-for-147 (30.6%)

A seven-game sample is far too minuscule to make any sweeping conclusions, but those splits are at least a little troubling.

Every Florida State game remaining will be played away from the Tucker Center. The Seminoles will have to shoot the ball better from the outside in the postseason to survive.

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