Florida State misses another opportunity behind a growing turnover problem

Jose Alvarado steals the ball from RayQuan Evans on the final possession of the game
Jose Alvarado steals the ball from RayQuan Evans on the final possession of the game(Robert Willett | WCTV)
Published: Mar. 14, 2021 at 7:02 AM EDT
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The final play of the ACC Tournament Championship game was a perfect microcosm of how Florida State’s entire evening transpired. With time winding down and Florida State seeking one last desperate push at a comeback, RayQuan Evans hurried up the floor down the right sideline and pulled up beyond the arc.

That’s where Jose Alvarado met him. By the time Evans could even attempt to hoist one last shot, the ACC Defensive Player of the Year had poked the ball away from him for his fifth steal of the night. Michael Devoe waited at the other end for an uncontested layup to seal the deal.

Georgia Tech’s bench was called for a technical foul for prematurely stepping onto the court with 0.6 seconds left, but by that point, it was all but over.

That final play was Florida State’s season-high 25th turnover of the night, and it made perfect sense that Alvarado, the one who wreaked havoc on the perimeter all night long, provided the exclamation point.

The Seminoles fell to Georgia Tech 80-75, missing an opportunity for the second time to collect a team accolade before the NCAA Tournament. First, they lost to a mediocre Notre Dame team last week to miss out on winning their second regular-season conference title in as many seasons. Then on Saturday night, they fell to a Georgia Tech team that had only five guys play more than 20 minutes to miss out on their second-ever ACC Tournament title.

“Obviously we’re extremely disappointed,” Florida State head coach Leonard Hamilton said. “Your hat goes off to a team that – Georgia Tech was extremely scrappy. They kind of showed you what intensity and sound defensive principles was like.”

Saturday was a deflating loss for Florida State because, in many ways, it played more than well enough to win. The Seminoles shot an extremely efficient 56% from the field, made 8-of-15 3s and 11-of-14 free throws, while holding Georgia Tech to just 44% from the field, including 5-of-23 on 3s.

However, Florida State’s defense sputtered when it mattered most, allowing Georgia Tech to make six of its final eight field-goal attempts. The Yellow Jackets also made 21 free throws in the second half after attempting none in the first 20 minutes. Many will point to a number of controversial fouls called down the stretch, but that was not the reason Florida State lost.

The biggest problem was that FSU attempted 12 fewer shots than the Yellow Jackets and made only one more field goal. That’s what happens when 37.9% of a team’s offensive possessions end in turnovers. Florida State simply just couldn’t get enough shots up to pull away from Georgia Tech late because of how poorly it took care of the ball.

M.J. Walker and Scottie Barnes combined for 14 turnovers alone.

Walker shot the ball better than he has over the last three games, scoring 15 points on 6-of-10 shooting (3-of-5 3s), but he continued a multiple-game stretch of perplexing decision-making and sloppy passing that just shouldn’t happen from a senior guard.

There were three different times where he made a pass that was well off-target and several others where he tried to dribble through Alvarado, which hasn’t worked out well for anyone this year.

Barnes scored a game-high 21 points on 8-of-10 shooting and mixed in several highlight-reel plays, as usual. However, he was uncharacteristically sloppy with his passing and often had trouble navigating the Georgia Tech zone.

Georgia Tech deserves a lot of credit. The Yellow Jackets play a unique zone defense and pressure the ball as well as any team in college basketball. They have two All-ACC defensive players in Alvarado and Moses Wright, along with several others who had a legitimate case to be selected for that honor too.

Alvarado made a few ridiculous steals on the perimeter that were reminiscent of the pesky defense Muggsy Bogues used to play.

It’s no coincidence that Florida State’s previous season-high in turnovers (21) was also against Georgia Tech back on Jan. 30.

“For whatever reason, we’ve been a team that really has seemed to always light up when we see a zone defense,” Hamilton said. “But for whatever reason tonight, we played with a lot of -- we played a lot like we were unsure of our cuts. We were unsure in our decision-making as we attacked their zone defense. The uncertainty with which we executed I thought led us to a lot of turnovers.

“You’ve got to give them credit. They have a knack for forcing turnovers unlike anyone that we’ve seen, especially the ability to steal and knock the ball out of your hands and then not foul,” Hamilton added. “That’s a skill that they have developed to the highest, and you have to give them credit for being who they are a lot better than we were able to be who we are.”

The flip side to all of the credit Georgia Tech deserves is that turnovers haven’t been a problem for Florida State solely in the two games it has encountered the Yellow Jackets.

The inability to take care of the ball has been the Achilles heel all season for the Seminoles, and the issue has seemingly worsened over the past several weeks.

When Florida State blitzed Virginia at the Tucker Center on Feb. 15 and committed only five turnovers in the process, there was hope that the Seminoles were on the verge of solving the one area that was holding them back from being a true national title contender.

It was fool’s gold. Here is what Florida State has done in the turnover department since the Virginia game:

  • at Pitt: 12 turnovers
  • at Miami: 11 turnovers
  • at North Carolina: 17 turnovers
  • vs. Boston College: 17 turnovers
  • at Notre Dame: 14 turnovers
  • vs. North Carolina: 18 turnovers
  • vs. Georgia Tech: 25 turnovers

The Seminoles average 13.9 turnovers per game, which is 213th in the county. The result of such sloppiness is that Florida State is playing its worst basketball of the season heading into the NCAA Tournament.

After the Virginia game, Florida State looked like the clear best team in the ACC and was on track to earning a one-seed in the tournament. Now the Seminoles will likely be no higher than a four-seed.

On top of missing two opportunities to win some version of a conference title, the Seminoles will likely have a much more difficult road ahead in the NCAA Tournament now.

Had Florida State taken just a little better care of the ball or gotten one more stop in crunch time, it would probably be at least a three-seed and positioned on the other side of the bracket as the one-seed in its region.

If the Seminoles are a four or five-seed, they will face a Sweet 16 matchup against a juggernaut like Gonzaga, Baylor or one of the several elite Big Ten teams. That’s of course assuming they even make it that far, which is far from a guarantee with how they have played over the past couple of weeks.

We won’t know Florida State’s seeding in the NCAA Tournament for certain until Sunday night, but every Bracketology projection as of this writing has the Seminoles no higher than a four-seed.

Either way, Saturday will go down as another missed opportunity for Florida State. There’s no denying that Hamilton has led a remarkable run of success in Tallahassee, especially over the last couple of years. However, to become a truly elite program the Seminoles need to find a way to win these types of games.

Losing to a Notre Dame team near the bottom of the ACC with a regular-season title on the line and committing 25 turnovers in the ACC Tournament Championship game isn’t something the best teams in college basketball do.

As the Seminoles await their fate on Section Sunday, they are forced to cope with the painful reality that they’ve now missed two program-altering opportunities in a span of seven days.

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