The unofficial theme of the 2019 West Regional at Honda Center in Anaheim? Goin' Back to Cali.
A year ago, Sweet 16 participants Florida State, Gonzaga and Michigan played in Los Angeles for the right to advance to the Final Four. The same three are back in Southern California, not far down the freeway in Anaheim. For Florida State and Gonzaga in particular, Thursday's matchup is a case of deja vu. The two played in last year's Sweet 16, with Florida State surprisingly dominant in a 75-60 win.
After coming one possession short of its first Final Four in almost a half-century, Florida State will look to rectify last year's near-miss, starting with a redux of the 2018 Regional semifinal. For Gonzaga, the dream of a second Final Four this decade is still attainable.
A stark contrast in styles highlights this Sweet 16 rematch. Florida State comes in ranked No. 10 in adjusted defensive efficiency per KenPom.com. Gonzaga, on the other hand, is No. 1 in the nation in adjusted offensive efficiency.
West Regional: No. 4 Florida State Seminoles (29-7) vs. No. 1 Gonzaga Bulldogs (32-3)
Time: 7:09 p.m. ET (Thursday)
Where: Honda Center (Anaheim, Calif.)
Keys for Florida State
Florida State's outstanding defense has been at the heart of the Seminoles' success, both in last year's NCAA Tournament and throughout this memorable, 2018-19 campaign. Following the Gonzaga win a year ago, Terance Mann laid it out in terms that still very much apply to Florida State basketball after the calendar turned.
"It's the way we bought in on defense," he said. "We knew we could score with anybody in the country, but in order to win games you've got to stop people."
The Seminoles have shown in this NCAA Tournament, they can stop opponents with the very best individual players the game has to offer. In the first round, it was Vermont with Anthony Lamb. In the Round of 32, Florida State routed a Murray State team with NBA lottery prospect Ja Morant. What makes the Murray State win particularly interesting, and applicable to the Gonzaga matchup, is how the Seminoles limited the impact of the rest of the Racers' roster.
Morant scored 28 points but did not get nearly the same support as an opening blowout of Marquette. Then, in turn, Florida State head coach Leonard Hamilton went deep into the bench. Led by Mfiondu Kabengele's 22 points, FSU reserves scored more than half (47) of the team's 90 total points. They also were key in turning Murray State's offense one-dimensional.
Last year's win over Gonzaga was similar, and Florida State must replicate in on Thursday. Rui Hachimura and Zach Norvell scored 30 of the team's 60 points, but the rest of the Zags were limited. This year's Gonzaga team features an ever-improving Hachimura, as well as the returning Norvell, but breakout star Brandon Clarke presents a different dynamic. Florida State's best bet defensively may be to let Clarke get his while limiting the production of those around him.
Keys for Gonzaga
Gonzaga head coach Mark Few has long relied on a free-flowing offensive style, and this year's lineup is one of the program's absolute best at pushing the pace. The Zags get good looks in short order, either pushing on the break even after opponent makes, or with uncanny ball movement. To negate Florida State's size, Gonzaga will have to space the floor effectively and find the seams to get looks inside the arc.
Gonzaga ranks best in the nation in 2-point field-goal shooting, the result of having a pair of outstanding big men in Hachimura and Clarke. Add the recently returned Killian Tillie, who went out of last year's game due to injury, and Gonzaga's frontcourt is arguably the best remaining in the NCAA Tournament field. But they'll need some 3-pointers to fall to draw out the defense, something that Florida State defended particularly well a season ago.
The Zags went a dismal 5-of-20 from behind the arc in that game. However, if there's one glaring weakness in Florida State's defense this season, it's that opponents hit the 3-pointer with some effectiveness (33.4 percent, and a 32.6-percent overall point distribution).
Norvell, veteran Josh Perkins, and reliable role player Corey Kispert all can and will shoot when open. Gonzaga needs to get a few to fall early, then attack with the stars inside as the Seminoles are forced to stretch.
Florida State's one of the nation's hottest teams, losing just twice since late January. Those defeats came at North Carolina, and on a neutral floor vs. Duke in the ACC Tournament title game. Hamilton's found a winning formula with his emphasis on defense and depth, two factors that completely stymied Gonzaga a season ago. But with Tillie back in the lineup, and the emergence of players like Kispert, this Gonzaga team is much deeper than last year's.
Meanwhile, Florida State takes the floor without veteran wing Phil Cofer. Cofer's father passed away last week. His physical absence does leave an unfortunate hole in the Seminoles lineup.
Because of the clash in styles, the relative familiarity between the teams, and the fact these are two of college basketball's very best teams, this should be an outstanding game that could go either way. However, Gonzaga boasting two first-round NBA talents in the frontcourt makes for a different challenge than Florida State faced in the opening two rounds. That should be the deciding factor in the Zags' favor.