Florida State 71, Notre Dame 57
(1.08 points per possession to .86 on 66 possessions per team)
Notre Dame versus Florida State. Even this time of the year, what does that match-up bring to mind? Well, if you're like me, it conjures up the images of college athletes like Rick Mirer and Charlie Ward, and in that scenario, Ward is wearing a football helmet. It didn't help that in the arena, they played that same Notre Dame fight song that you hear on a loop on NBC's football telecasts, a tune that I think still bangs around my head from those old Sunday morning Lindsey Nelson highlight shows.
In basketball terms, circa 2011, the pairing brings to mind this: Offense versus defense. As I've written about 312 times the last few days, the Irish entered the game third in the game nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency. At the other end, Florida State ranked first in adjusted defensive efficiency, ascending to the top spot after putting a choke-hold on Texas A&M in Friday's second round matchup. So what would win out, the irresistible force or the good defense? (Sorry, I couldn't go whole-cliche on that one.)
"The offensive end seems small (against FSU)," said Brey. "They do a great job of protecting the basket."
The first half was all Florida State--on both ends. The Seminoles completely took the Notre Dame motion offense apart and scattered the component pieces in an alleyway behind the United Center. The Irish were 9-of-30 from the floor and 1-of-10 from three-point range. They committed five turnovers and managed just seven second-chance points off eight offensive rebounds. Ben Hansbrough was 1-of-5. So was Carleton Scott, who battled foul trouble. Tim Abromaitis hit 3-of-9. Nothing was working against the long Florida State defense, which blocked six shots in the first 20 minutes.
"Notre Dame was the most difficult team we've had to defend this year because they're so diverse," said Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton. "They gave us some problems early in the game but we were able to make adjustments."
Notre Dame might have been okay if not for its troublesome tendency to lose track of FSU's perimeter shooters. The Irish packed the lane and limited the 'Noles to 4-of-15 on two-point shots. That sounds pretty good until you realize that Florida State hit 7-of-12 from deep. It wasn't just one guy--FSU moved the ball for nine assists on its 11 first-half field goals. No player hit more than two threes; five hit at least one. FSU led 34-23 at the break.
"If we can stay consistent on the offensive end, I like our chances," said FSU guard Derwin Kitchen.
So does Notre Dame coach Mike Brey.
"Florida State flat out beat us," said Brey. "The combination of their defense in the first half and their three-pointers put us on our heels. I thought that we could give them jump shots, but they made them."
As the teams left the floor at halftime, the sizable Notre Dame contingent reigned boos on the officials as they made their way back stage. There were a number of no calls that as per usual sent Brey careening. Really, though, it was simply a matter of one team being quicker off the dribble and staying aggressive. When the boos started up again as the officials returned to the court for the second half, I thought to myself, "These people watch basketball like they're from a football school." Really, though, they did a disservice to their team because a scene like that can get in a player's head and lead to frustration with an officiating crew that was doing just fine.
There hadn't been any drama in any of the five previous Chicago pod games and with the last one disintegrating into another walk-over, it was a little disappointing. Notre Dame quickly fell behind by 18 in the first five minutes of the second half. Realistically, no team is going to make up that large of deficit against a Florida State team that is suddenly looking very dangerous.
"I've felt that through the ups and downs we've had this year, our team has grown and improved in a lot of different ways," said Hamilton. "They call themselves brothers and that's kind of the way things have gone with this team."
The lead reached 23 when FSU's Michael Snaer sank a three, the Seminoles' eighth of the game (in 15 tries). At that point, the leprechaun looked like he wanted to sneak out, but there were a couple of sturdy NCAA officials blocking his way. Can't those things turn invisible at will?
"Today we got the kind of looks we're capable of getting because of offensive execution," said Hamilton, blatantly dodging the leprechaun question. "We're capable of shooting the ball like that. ... I'm hoping that now we're finding ourselves."
With the game out of control, this made for the perfect opportunity to tell you about the mania the NCAA has with Powerade / NCAA paper cups that they'll be cleaning out of the United Center for the next six weeks. Everybody has to use them. Everybody. I carry around a thermal to-go mug everywhere I go, along with a nice selection of herbal teas. (That's the way I roll.) I didn't run into any issues on Friday, but on Sunday, I was shanghaied as I made my way onto the court towards press row. I was told that I had to pour my piping hot beverage into one of those Powerade / NCAA paper cups. I don't like paper cups. They're tawdry and bad for the environment. If I didn't comply, though, I would not be granted access. Simple as that. So I poured my tea into one flimsy little paper cup. And it burned my hand. Thanks NCAA. I've always had a problem with authority, and my experience with you this weekend didn't help one bit. (Everyone was very nice about their tasks, I should add. The rules come from upstairs.)
I mentioned the other night Notre Dame's poor record when it can't get to a point per possession. Make that mark 2-6 as the Irish didn't even get to .90 in offensive efficiency. Given their middling defense, that wasn't going to get them past FSU. After the game, the question came up about just what made Hamilton's defense click.
"We have a whole list of principles and fundamentals that we follow that feel like we need to be consistent on defense, no matter what kind of system that we play against," said Hamilton. "We try to hold our players accountable. As you try to build a program, you try to win with what you have. We want our players to believe that defense is something that everyone can participate in. Team defense. We try to have a defensive system that always has five guys against the ball."
Anyway, the Irish did eventually mount a run. They extended to full-court pressure and FSU got skittish. Snaer's trey came with 13 minutes to play. FSU didn't score again until Kitchen made two free throws with 8:05 left. The Irish didn't exactly heat up on offense, but a couple of layup here and a jumper there and eventually they closed the gap to 52-40. The last two of points of that 11-0 run scored after a technical was called on Snaer. It looked like Snaer was simply been trying to yell something to Hamilton and he looked crestfallen after he was T'd up. The technical came immediately after a Hansbrough three-pointer and really got the Notre Dame faithful back into the game. Perhaps there would be some drama after all. FSU led 54-40 at the media timeout, which came with 7:53 to play.
"We were just managing the crisis. We don't press much and we kind of put it in during one of those timeouts," said Brey. "Our kids did a good job of it and made it interesting there for awhile."
The Notre Dame pressure continued to frazzle Florida State, but the Seminoles' advantage was just too large. Notre Dame is not built to play a scrambled game and their exacting offensive system was of little use when the strategy of the moment called for getting as many shots up as possible, and quickly too. The lead stayed in the 15-20 point range until, finally, Brey pulled Hansbrough with 3:19 play. The senior went down the line on the Irish bench, exchanging handshakes and hugs, as the fans gave him a nice ovation. Hansbrough settled onto the bench and watched the rest of the game from the sidelines.
"We invested so much and it just comes to a screeching halt," said Brey, summing up what happens when the madness of March subsides.
More than anything, the difficulty FSU had with the ad-hoc Notre Dame pressure serves as red flag for its next matchup against VCU. The Rams are of course a team accustomed to playing a pressure defense, so Hamilton is going to have some points to shore up over the next few days. But things are looking up for the Seminoles, who have been troubled by injuries woes all season.
"Hopefully this is just the beginning of something special," said Hamilton. "The best thing about this team is that I feel like our best basketball is still ahead of us."
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Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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