NCAA: Florida State a heavyweight compared to VCU
AP Sports Writer
SAN ANTONIO (AP) – Florida State has all the pieces to be a second-weekend darling in the NCAA tournament: a double-digit seed, a star player working his way back from foot surgery last month and a 26-year-old big man who served three tours of duty in the Middle East for the Air Force.
Yet the Seminoles aren’t even the most compelling team in their Southwest Regional semifinal.
That would be Virginia Commonwealth, a team whose tournament credentials were so shaky that the coach didn’t hold a selection-watching party for fear they wouldn’t be invited.
The Rams got in through the back door, one of two new spots in a “First Four” game. Critics said they didn’t belong, but they proved otherwise by blowing past Southern Cal, then trashing traditional powers Georgetown and Purdue by 18 points each.
Now VCU is deeper in the NCAAs than ever before and is the only team in the tournament that can boast about winning three games last week. There’s far less criticism this week, but coach Shaka Smart is on the lookout because he knows it brings out the best in his players.
“I saw somebody had us rated 16th out of the 16 teams still left,” Smart said, smiling. “I think there’s still some people that are doubting, you know, how well we can do down here in San Antonio. … There’s some challenges that we have to battle through. But our guys know what brought us success last week. It’s mostly a matter of maintaining that mindset going into this game.”
He won’t get any help from the Seminoles.
FSU coach Leonard Hamilton did all he could Thursday to pump up his foe, calling them “definitely one of those ACC-type teams.” Asked about being favored in this game as a No. 10 seed, Hamilton said, “We are?”
“We’ve got to take VCU just as seriously as we would Kansas or Duke or any other team,” guard Michael Snaer said. “They made it this far.”
The winner of this matchup between 10 and 11 seeds will advance to play Sunday against either top-seeded Kansas or yet another what-are-they-doing-here? team, 12th-seeded Richmond, in a game to determine a spot in the Final Four.
Despite the charm of this game, it’s the late game Friday night, the last of the round, in part because it might not make for scintillating TV.
Both clubs thrive on defense. First team to 70 probably will win.
The Seminoles (23-10) are about to wrap up their second straight season of leading the nation in field goal defense, a back-to-back feat not done since Georgetown did in 1990 and ’91. Florida State has dropped last season’s national-best .377 down to .360. In the NCAA tournament, FSU limited seventh-seeded Texas A&M and second-seeded Notre Dame to .310.
And, get this: More help is on the way.
Chris Singleton, voted the ACC defensive player of the year by league coaches, is coming off his two best practices since breaking his right foot and undergoing arthroscopic surgery in February. He played in both games of the tournament but should be even better against VCU.
“He’s getting closer to kind of looking like his old self,” Hamilton said. “I think it’s just taking him a week or so just to gain his confidence back, starting and stopping and changing direction, things of that nature. So I want him being a little bit more involved in this game than he was the other games because I think he’s feeling more comfortable.”
Hamilton told his club at the start of the season they were capable of playing for the national championship. They flashed that potential in January when they knocked off then-No. 1 Duke but showed their vulnerability by losing three of six games without Singleton.
They’ve weathered other injuries and the usual breaking-in period for two freshmen and two junior-college transfers. So maybe they are finally hitting their stride – like Bernard James, the former military man who has stepped up in the tournament, averaging 12 points and eight rebounds.
“They’re a 10-seed, but they’re a 10-seed in number only,” Smart said, showing he can sing a foe’s praises as loudly as Hamilton. “To me they’re playing like a two or three seed – or even a one-seed.”
VCU (26-11) obviously is playing better than its seed, too, having worked through the problems that caused a 3-5 slide in February. The Rams reached the finals of the Colonial Athletic Association tournament but lost to Old Dominion, prompting the drama on selection Sunday.
Bradford Burgess was convinced they wouldn’t make it, and Joey Rodriguez was convinced they would. They’ve embraced the opportunity, winning in the NCAA tournament by wider margins than they did while winning the CBI tournament last March.
Playing an extra game last week hasn’t hurt them any, either. If anything it seems to have helped them stay in this groove.
“I think we’re good,” Rodriguez said. “I could have played two days ago.”