Florida State 57, Texas A&M 50
(.93 points per possession to .85 on 60 possessions per team)
There were stretches when it looked like Texas A&M would have been lucky to score 20 points against Florida State on Friday, a fact that wasn't any surprise to A&M coach Mark Turgeon.
"I'll be honestly with you," Turgeon said. "I felt like we could have beaten a lot teams in this tournament, but Florida State was a tough matchup for us. They're long and they're big and we've struggled against teams like that all year."
It's impossible to catch the post-game presser, finish your story, and get ready for the second game of an NCAA regional session. You can't do it, not if you actually want to do interviews and weave in the quotes. I felt like I was doing well to get my Notre Dame-Akron story posted with 11:37 to go in the first half of the Texas A&M-Florida State game. What did I miss? In terms of points, not very damn much: FSU was up 7-2.
Leonard Hamilton has crafted the country's stingiest defense over the last two seasons, but holding a quality Big 12 team to two points in nine minutes is impressive. Awfully impressive. The Seminoles were able to put the early clamps on without injured star Chris Singleton, who was dressed but bound to the bench. Early on, they didn't need the ACC's Defensive Player of the Year.
At one point, while I was still writing, the guy next to me said, "Five turnovers, zero points."
"(Florida State) can flat out guard," said Turgeon.
Unfortunately, Florida State has a problem with balance. As in it has none. The Seminoles might have ranked second nationally on defense, but their No. 154 ranking on offense was even worse than last season's No. 130, when they led the nation in defensive efficiency. So it was no surprise that a couple of free throws and a Nathan Walkup three-pointer capped a 9-0 run for the Aggies, knotting the game at 12.
With FSU leading 14-12, Singleton made his initial appearance in the contest, his first game time since breaking his foot on Feb. 12. At the very least, it was a nice energy boost for the surprisingly vocal Florida State contingent, that had been lulled to sleep by the slow pace and low score. A couple of minutes later, Singleton raised from the right elbow and nailed a jumper, putting the Seminoles up 17-16. He followed that up by stripping the ball from Texas A&M's Ray Turner on the Aggies' ensuing possession. He was back.
"I felt good," said Singleton. "I feel like I'm in pretty good condition. I don't think (conditioning) was a factor. It was just a matter if my foot was going to hold up and tonight it did."
Florida State does a tremendous job of flooding the lane on defense, but A&M's Khris Middleton is tough to keep out of the paint. He attempted seven free throws in the first half, and was instrumental at drawing the defense for open looks on the perimeter. Texas A&M was hitting just a third of its shots, but hit four threes to forge its advantage. The Aggie offense picked up a tick (relatively speaking) towards the end of the half and pulled ahead by five.
Singleton wasn't tremendously assertive, but he was moving well and he was enough of a presence that you had to wonder why it took Hamilton so long to insert him. Well, here's why: He was a step slow. Middleton picked up three fouls in six minutes and returned to the bench before the end of the half. After an FSU possession that ended in a shot-clock violation (guard Derwin Kitchen didn't even really initiate a play until six seconds were left), Middleton drilled a wing three at the buzzer, putting Texas A&M up 26-23 at the break, a first-half score the Big Ten would be proud of.
"That was a wierd game," said Turgeon. "We started out so poorly and couldn't believe we were up at the half."
The numbers were ugly indeed: Texas A&M averaged .87 points per possession, Florida State was at .77. Both teams turned the ball over on around a quarter of their possessions. The Seminoles did fine inside the arc (7-of-12) but hit just 1-of-9 from behind it. Meanwhile, the Aggies hit just two shots inside the three-point line (on seven attempts) but hit 5-of-11 against the collapsing Florida State defense. A&M kept the Seminoles in the game in one respect, hitting just 7-of-17 from the line. The Aggies had 10 more free-throw attempts than FSU, but just one more point on freebies.
"If we just make a free throw in the first half we're up a lot more," said Turgeon.
As for Singleton, the boost Florida State got from him was intangible at best and certainly short-lived. He hit 1-of-2 shots in his six minutes, getting the steal I described and committing three fouls. At the break, it didn't look like his return was going to boost the Seminoles in any significant way.
Texas A&M scored the first five points of the second half before the Seminoles began to push the pace, resulting in some open baseline looks for Bernard James. Florida State reeled off seven straight points, pulling within one. You couldn't accuse either offense, no matter how stagnant, of breaking down into isolation sets--out of the first 20 made field goals, 17 of them came off assists, including all nine by Texas A&M. Anyway, the Seminoles looked primed to break out of the offensive doldrums, pounding the ball inside and pushing down the floor for early offense.
"Our players committed to reversing the ball, moving the ball and we got much better shots," said Hamilton.
The run stretched to 11, as James kept working his magic on the low block, scoring eight of his 10 points to that juncture during the run. On the last basket before Turgeon was forced to call a timeout, James was set up on the right low block with Turner on his hip. With no easy entry pass from the wing, he called for the ball to be reversed out top, which it was. Meanwhile, he spun into the lane, keeping Turner behind him and creating a perfect angle to receive a feed from Okaro White. He caught and scored, putting Florida State up 34-31 and suddenly leaving Turgeon trying to figure out a way to halt the Seminoles' interior offense. To that point, FSU held a 16-4 edge on points in the paint.
That was the game plan from the beginning, trying to get the ball down the low and getting their bigs in foul trouble," said James. "We didn't do a very good job of that in the first half."
The run was finally snapped at 13 points when A&M's David Loubeau broke loose for a layup. (Kevin B from our live chat had an appropriate comment: If a 13-point run takes over six minutes, should we just call it a "walk"?) A&M scored again and with 10 minutes to play, Hamilton summoned Singleton back into the game. A short while later, Singleton drilled a key three, putting FSU up 45-40. That came in the midst of another run, this one 7-0, that gave the Seminoles their biggest lead of the game.
"He's a big time player it was the shot," said Turgeon. "That was big, it took our spirit right back."
Hamilton said he ended up playing Singleton more minutes that he'd originally intended.
"Chris has been practicing for about four days out of the last five weeks," said Hamilton. "It had not been determined if he was going to play until about noon. I reluctantly played him. He had doubled up his rehab, wanting to take part in the NCAAs. I really felt more comfortable with him not playing at all, but he convinced me.
"He's got a very high basketball IQ. When things broke down in the first half, I thought he did a great job of getting us back in synch."
The biggest adjustment Hamilton made was to increase his defense's focus on Middleton, who didn't score his first points of the second half until 4:27 was remaining in the game. Every time down the floor, Hamilton could be heard screaming, "Where's Middleton?" What little offense the Aggies were able to muster came mostly from the three-point shooting of Walkup, who stayed planted in the corner. Florida State played a lot of zone in the second half, nearly erasing Middleton's ability to get into the paint. For the game, A&M shot 7-of-26 inside the arc.
"The defense just collapsed everybody inside," said a distraught-looking Middleton. "Not just against me, but everybody. I just tried to shoot or pass."
"We just didn't do a good job against the zone, that's the bottom line," said Turgeon.
It was likely that Turgeon hadn't even expected to see any zone against the Seminoles.
"We don't use that many zones in our defensive schemes, but we thought the change would be a good look," said Hamilton. "It seemed like (going to zone) was the right thing to do."
Down the stretch, the Aggies just couldn't find any room to work against the Seminoles' offense. Singleton finished the game, putting up just five points all told, but offered glimpses of what he can provide with a game under his belt. That might be scary news for Notre Dame, which will pit it's elite offense against perhaps the nation's most air-tight defense. Singleton's return gives FSU hope that it can perhaps score enough to outlast the Irish. It's going to be a fascinating contrast of styles.
"They run a very unique offense, the way a lot of high schools in Indiana do it. It's kind of a traditional offense in the state of Indiana," said Hamilton. "They are going to challenge all of our defensive principles."
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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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