What would a region be without a No. 1 seed? Thanks first to UMBC (South) and more recently to Florida State (West), two of the four No. 1 seeds didn’t get to dance into the second weekend. The No. 9 Seminoles (22-11, 9-9 ACC) will look to keep the upset train rolling when they meet the No. 4 Gonzaga Bulldogs (32-4, 17-1 WCC) in the Sweet 16 Thursday in Los Angeles.
Florida State is in the midst of its 16th NCAA Tournament appearance and its second in as many years. The Seminoles reached the Sweet 16 for just the fifth time in program history, its most recent appearance in 2011 (a 72-71 overtime loss to No. 11 VCU). Gonzaga, on the other hand, is dancing for the 20th consecutive year and 21st overall. This is the Bulldogs’ third straight season advancing to the Sweet 16 and ninth overall, winning and advancing to the Elite Eight in only three of its previous eight trips.
This will be only the second meeting between these two teams. The only previous matchup between FSU and Gonzaga incidentally also came in the NCAA Tournament in 2010, a seven-point Gonzaga win. The win gave head coach Mark Few his program record-setting 291st win at Gonzaga in what was just his 10th season at the helm.
Xavier entered as the least-favored top seed to win its respective region, and the Seminoles proved why on Sunday. Florida State came off a dominant 13-point win against Missouri in the first round in Nashville and took that momentum into its matchup with the Musketeers.
Xavier led for more than 30 minutes and by as many as 12 points with less than 11 minutes remaining in regulation. But the Seminoles stormed back on the strength of 46 bench points to win by five, clinching FSU’s first-ever win against a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament.
Gonzaga has taken care of business in its first two games, though finishing the job has certainly not come easily in either round thus far. No. 13 UNC Greensboro nearly knocked off the No. 4-seeded Bulldogs in the first round, but guards Josh Perkins and Zach Norvell Jr. held off the Spartans’ furious upset attempt.
Gonzaga was more in control in the second round against Ohio State, though the Buckeyes made a late run to cut the Bulldogs’ lead to single digits. Ultimately, the freshman Norvell — who led Gonzaga with 28 points — put the game away in the final minutes.
West Region: No. 9 Florida State Seminoles (22-11) vs. No. 4 Gonzaga Bulldogs (32-4)
Time: 10:07 p.m. ET (Thursday)
Where: Staples Center (Los Angeles)
Keys for Florida State
The Seminoles manage to rank in the top 40 nationally in scoring despite being dreadful from the free-throw line. The Noles’ 68.5 percent clip from the stripe was good (bad) enough for 14th in the ACC and 281st in the country.
The Seminoles do boast a balanced offense that leads to their 81.1 points per game, but the deficiencies from the line can come back to bite them if they cannot fully right the ship in time.
Against Xavier, the Noles were 19-for-22 (86.4 percent) from the free-throw line, so the path is there; what’s left is for head coach Leonard Hamilton’s squad to continue to make them.
Keys for Gonzaga
Nothing gives underdogs more life in the NCAA Tournament than offensive rebounds and second-chance points. Gonzaga is in as good a position as anyone to limit both of those, as the Bulldogs led the West Coast Conference — and ranked in the top 10 nationally — in both defensive rebounds per game (28.72) and total rebounds (1,433).
Recall when UNC Greensboro took Gonzaga down to the wire? The pesky Spartans hauled in 41 rebounds compared to the Bulldogs’ 37. In Gonzaga’s last game against Ohio State, the Bulldogs held a plus-14 advantage on the boards and led for all but seven minutes.
In 36 games this season, the Zags are 30-1 when they out-rebound opponents, compared to 2-3 when they do not. Barring extreme circumstances — like the madness of this tournament — expect Gonzaga to have its way on the boards.
Call Florida State a Cinderella team after their No. 9 seed and their upset of top-seeded Xavier, but let’s be honest: in the major conferences, there can be at most one Cinderella. That team, at least for now, is the Syracuse Orange, who have already won three games in this NCAA Tournament, including an upset over No. 3 Michigan State over the weekend.
And while the better team doesn’t always win in March, Gonzaga has all the pieces to make another deep run after last year’s trip to the championship game.
Prediction: Gonzaga 82, Florida State 73
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and currently a junior at the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and works for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the Editor-in-Chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.
(Top photo courtesy of Getty Images)