When Virginia Tech faced Florida State last month in Blacksburg, the thought at the time was the loser would likely be climbing out of a big hole during the rest of the ACC season. In their conference opener, the Seminoles had been beaten badly at Clemson, losing by 20 just three days before their game with the Hokies. Virginia Tech, meanwhile, came out sluggishly and had lost at Wake Forest to begin conference play.
And since Florida State’s narrow victory over Virginia Tech on Jan. 15, those predictions have proven true. The Seminoles have won seven of eight games since escaping Cassell Coliseum with a 63-59 win, including victories over Duke and North Carolina that has No. 20 Florida State in the driver’s seat in terms of capturing the ACC’s regular season title.
“The first meeting that we had with Virginia Tech, we didn’t know where we were,” Florida State Coach Leonard Hamilton said this week. “I’m not sure Virginia Tech really knew who we were. We didn’t know who we were ourselves at that time. There was a tremendous sense of urgency for both teams.”
The Hokies have gone in the other direction until recently. That loss to Florida State was one of seven during an eight-game tailspin that Virginia Tech is only beginning to recover from. But the Hokies did manage to sandwich two home wins around an ugly loss at Miami over the past two weeks, and the upcoming schedule should allow Virginia Tech plenty of opportunities to play spoiler as it tries to earn a National Invitation Tournament berth and gain some momentum heading into the offseason.
Of the Hokies’ six remaining regular season games, four come against teams that are either on the NCAA tournament bubble or battling for better seeding on Selection Sunday. More important to Coach Seth Greenberg, though, is developing the sort of habits that will make a season featuring more setbacks than expected worthwhile.
“We are just not as tough as we need to be,” Greenberg said this week. “And we have got to really redefine for our guys what toughness and playing hard is, and bend the goals to play well, which is obviously something we are working towards.”
“I think it’s a product of a little bit of our — despite what some people think, it’s a product of our youth. We don’t have a dominating, top physical player in our lineup, nor a guy that sets the tone right now, and that affects it.”
To that end, the battle inside will likely decide the outcome of this rematch. Though Florida State has the most experienced front court in the ACC this year – Bernard James had 18 and 15 rebounds when these teams met in January — the Hokies’ big men must have more an impact in the paint.
But that could be harder than expected if C.J. Barksdale can’t play. The 6-foot-8 freshman has been in a boot this week after spraining his ankle in Virginia Tech’s win over Boston College, and Greenberg said his availability will be a game-time decision. If he can’t play, it’s unlikely the coach would be able to use forwards Victor Davila and Cadarian Raines – the Hokies’ two biggest players – together to combat James and Co.
On the bright side, it seems freshman Dorian Finney-Smith has finally hit his stride in ACC play. He has averaged 11 points and eight rebounds over the past three games, and his game-winning tip-in against the Eagles is just the sort of confidence booster Greenberg had been hoping for.
But the Seminoles also have dangerous scorers in guards Michael Snaer (team-high 13.8 points per game), Deividas Dulkys and Ian Miller, all of whom are streaky shooters that have gone off for 18 or more points at least once this season. Florida State’s one true weakness is its penchant for turnovers. Hamilton’s squad ranks last in the ACC in assist-to-turnover ratio, averaging close to 17 turnovers per game.
That, though, didn’t cost the Seminoles in Blacksburg earlier this year, when they committed 19 turnovers. Greenberg summed up the teams’ first matchup like this: “In the end, James, like he does in a lot of games, whether it’s Duke or Virginia or Virginia Tech, it seems like he becomes a dominant player, and then Snaer makes a big shot.”
But the Seminoles have shown, even during this hot streak, that they are susceptible to hiccups. Last week they lost at Boston College, and the Eagles provided a template for success. Even though Florida State is tops in the ACC in terms of opponent’s field goal percentage, Coach Boston College hit 10 three-pointers to offset the Seminoles’ advantage inside. The Hokies, though, have hit 10 or more three-pointers just twice this season.
“Unfortunately for us, we’re still evolving,” Hamilton said. “We’re not anywhere close to being as good as we’re capable of. We have not been consistent enough in any one particular area, other than we’ve been pretty solid on the defensive end, but we’ve been inconsistent in a lot of areas. We’re still searching, trying to find our true identity. That’s one good thing about this team. Even though we had some measure of success, we realize that we still have a lot of room for improvement.”
I won’t be in attendance at for Thursday’s 7 p.m. tip in Tallahassee, but I will have some thoughts on Twitter (@HokiesJournal) while watching on television. Check back here Friday for postgame analysis as well as a preview of Saturday’s quick turnaround game against Georgia Tech at Cassell Coliseum.