So now that we know UNC isn't cursed to lose the third game of the ACC season, we can take a look at their opponent. Florida State may be the most highly rated six-loss team in the country, although an argument can be made fr Belmont or Long Beach State, I suppose. The Seminoles have dropped some incredibly close games against strong opponents, losing to Connecticut in overtime and Princeton in three overtimes. They've also lost to Michigan State by fifteen, Florida by eighteen, and Clemson by twenty. In fact, they've lost three of their last five, and only a squeaker win over Virginia Tech earlier this week keeps their post-Christmas record from being disastrous.
That's not so say the Seminoles can be taken lightly. Like the Leonard Hamilton teams of recent years that finished 12th, 1st, and 1st in defensive efficiency, this year's team is strongest when their opponents have the ball. Bernard James and Xavier Gibson might be the best shot-blocking duo outside of Chapel Hill. At twenty-six, James hasn't improved significantly over last season, but he hasn't needed to, helping the Seminoles to another top-5 block rate in the nation. This is key, because FSU's defense thrives on forcing bad shots from opponents. Getting buckets in the paint is difficult, and the smothering defense continues to the wings, where they have one of the best three-point defenses as well, along with a good steal rate.
If Florida State has a defensive weakness, it's rebounding, which has killed them against the Heels. Last season in Tallahassee, John Henson had 19 points and 12 rebounds to lead all players. The fact is, UNC is one of the few programs in the country with the size to overwhelm FSU. The force more collapsing from the wings to defend, explaining why the Heels have shot surprisingly well from behind the arc against the Seminoles. In Tallahassee, it was Leslie McDonald and Harrison Barnes doing most of the damage, but Reggie Bullock could have a good game this time around.
Florida State's offense sputters a lot more since the departure of Chris Singleton and Derwin Kitchen. The guy expected to take a big role was Michael Snaer, the junior small forward, and he was the team's key three-point shooter in the fall. Since Ian Miller rejoined the team for the Florida game however, he's become the second option. Miller, while still not starting, is leading the team in points per game, scoring at least fifteen in his last four appearances.
That hasn't been enough to steal a starting job away from senior Deividas Dulkys or point guard Luke Loucks, but it's only a matter of time. As the team's best defender, Dulkys' job might be safe, but it's rare he's truly an offensive threat, despite having 17 points in his last meeting with the Heels. As the point guard, Loucks has been a bit turnover prone, although it's the bench that is more the cause of FSU's horrible overall turnover rate.
FSU goes to their bench a lot, routinely playing nine or ten players at least ten minutes a game. No one truly stands out for anything positive – Jeff Peterson is at his third school and still hasn't shaken a horrendous turnover habit, for instance – but any can catch on fire for a few minutes at home. This is a big game for FLorida State, with Gameday present, a big home crowd, and a near must-win after a rough non-conference season and a tough start against Clemson. UNC, meanwhile, as been home for over a month. I don't see that in particular being a problem, and this team is built to defeat the Seminoles, but a sow start could spell trouble.
One year ago, Florida State served as the debut for Kendall Marshall as the lone point guard at UNC, and he tore the Seminoles apart. This time he brings the most experienced team in the ACC to Talahassee to kick off a run for the conference championship. The Heels should win this, but it's a much higher level of competition than they've seen lately.