One of the biggest questions swirling around ACC country in the preseason was who would be the second-best team in the conference?
If Florida State can beat Boston College at home Saturday night, they can make a strong case for deserving to be the answer.
The winner will move into a two-way tie for first place in the ACC standings with No. 4 Duke (assuming the 17-1 Blue Devils can handle a Wake Forest team that lost its four ACC games by an average of 26 points). Florida State, Boston College and Duke are currently in a three-way tie for first and while the Blue Devils lost in Tallahassee it's clear they remain the class of the league as expected - they are still the only ranked team in the ACC.
Florida State and Boston College enter with identical overall records (14-5) and similar resumes. Both suffered some puzzling losses in non-conference play (FSU fell to a rebuilding Auburn team and BC lost its second game to Yale), but have excelled against the ACC. FSU is riding a three-game winning streak with each of those wins coming against ACC foes while BC won its first three ACC games.
But, when it comes to style they couldn't be more different. As usual, FSU's biggest strength is its defense. The 'Noles enter Saturday's contest leading the nation in field goal percentage defense (34.9 percent). They held Miami to 32 percent shooting on Wednesday, which allowed them to win despite missing the first 10 shots from the field and scoring just 55 points.
The Eagles have emerged as one of the nation's most efficient offensive teams under first-year coach Steve Donahue, who took Cornell to the Sweet 16 in 2009-10. Donahue, who inherited four returning starters, replaced the flex offense that was a staple of the Al Skinner era for a variety of schemes. The results have the Eagles ranking second in the ACC in field goal percentage (48 percent) and 3-point field goal percentage (39 percent). Their 10.5 turnovers per game are the lowest average in the ACC and the sixth-lowest in the nation.
"They don't have much different personnel when it comes to who is going to be on the floor and starting the game," FSU assistant coach Stan Jones said. "They have seven veteran players who have been through the wars. The biggest difference is their style of play. They have switched more to a contained man-to-man defense and mix in a variety of zones. Offensively, they are opening up the floor a lot more than when they used the old flex. They are actually using a combination of three philosophies, including dribble-and-drive motion, some Pete Carril Princeton style action with backdoor cuts and a bit of a two-guard offense that John Beilein used at West Virginia."
The Eagles boast four players who are averaging double-figures in scoring. Three are starters, guards Reggie Jackson (19.4 ppg) and Biko Paris (10.8 ppg) and forward Joe Trapani (13.9 ppg). The, other, forward, Corey Raji (12.5 ppg), is one of the nation's top sixth men.
Jackson has made some remarkable strides. The 6-foot-3 junior is shooting 47 percent from 3-point range, up from 27 percent last season. He's also averaging a team-high 4.8 assists a game.
"(Jackson) has made an unbelievable jump," Jones said. "He was always an explosive scorer, but he's taken it to another level. He's can shoot of the dribble, catch and shoot, pull up and shoot and has really expanded his range. He can also go to his right or left. He's a unique athlete."
FSU has faced a lot of zones defensively - including a two-three from Miami virtually the entire game - but Jones isn't sure that the Eagles will necessarily do the same.
"We attached (Miami's) zone better than we are getting credit for," he said. "We went to the free throw line a number of times (FSU shot 30 free throws but only made 16). The key when facing a man-to-man defense is you are reading where your man and that's showing you where to go. In a zone, you are reading a gap and that's not skill every fan understands."
WHAT TO LOOK FOR:
This is a matchup of a great offensive team (BC) versus a great defensive team (FSU). Many may think it may come down to FSU's ability to be effective against a zone defense, but the 'Noles showed they can win at Miami even when they struggle to score against a zone. The bigger key is holding BC's scoring threats in check and getting them out of rhythm offensively. Duke doesn't have as many scoring threats as BC and ultimately that could be the difference. FSU can play good defense but can they score enough to keep up pace on the scoreboard. We think they'll fall a little short and will lose 66-63.
WHO'S HOT FOR THE SEMINOLES:
FSU is 3-0 since moving big man Terrance Shannon into the starting lineup. Shannon has scored in double figures the last two games ... Point guard Derwin Kitchen has nine assists and only two turnovers in their last three games ... Freshman forward Okaro White went 6-of-6 from the free throw line against Miami.
WHO'S HOT FOR THE EAGLES:
Jackson is averaging 23 points over his last four games ... Paris has dished out 24 assists while committing only nine turnovers in his last five games ... Forward Danny Rubin is shooting 45.5 percent from 3-point range.
Six of the seven games in the FSU-BC series have been decided by five or fewer points. In the eight meetings, FSU has 492 points and BC has 482.
The Seminoles are off to their best start in the ACC since the 1992-93 season.