Had Florida State been facing North Carolina a month ago there would have been talk of catching the Tar Heels at the right time and talk of catching the Tar Heels in the midst of another down year.
Instead, Florida State (16-6, 6-2 ACC) is facing the ACC's hottest team on Sunday afternoon in Chapel Hill.
Since suffering four non-conference losses and dropping from No. 8 to out of the polls, North Carolina (16-5, 6-1) has won nine of their last 10. The Tar Heels, who have resurfaced in the AP poll at No. 23, are coming off a 106-74 rout at Boston College. That is the largest margin of victory for a road team in a conference game this season.
"All teams go through period of adjustments and styles and when you are Carolina it's tough because with their rich tradition they get everybody's best shot," FSU coach Leonard Hamilton said. "The talent all seems to be coming together and their execution seems to be peaking."
Last season North Carolina missed the NCAA Tournament and suffered a 77-67 loss to the Seminoles in Chapel Hill along the way. But, beating North Carolina, the second-winningest program in college basketball, which is only two years removed from its fifth national title, still holds extra meaning.
"It's still North Carolina. You still get up for that game," FSU sophomore guard Michael Snaer said. "They are still a rich program and it means a lot to beat them."
Beating the Tar Heels will likely require something the Seminoles haven't managed to do yet this season: Play well on the road against a quality opponent.
Even in the 'Noles only ACC road win, they survived some sloppy play to hold on for an ugly 55-53 victory at Miami (the 'Noles missed their first 10 shots). Their other two road ACC games resulted in double-digit losses (71-59 at Virginia Tech and 62-44 at Clemson). At Clemson, they fell behind 22-6.
At home, it's been quite the opposite story for the 'Noles, who are 5-0 against ACC foes in Tallahassee. That stretch includes a 66-61 upset of then-No. 1 Duke and three double digit wins (84-71 over NC State, 67-51 over Boston College and a 85-61 triumph over Wake Forest in their last game on Tuesday).
"When we are at home we have that crowd pumping that energy into us. On the road we haven't figured out how to channel that yet," Snaer said. "We sat down and talked about it. It's the same way for other teams on their home courts. The players get so emotionally involved that they do things they haven't done all season. We got do the same thing. We got to have that emotion inside us. We got to pump that life into each other from our teammates."
North Carolina's highly-touted freshman swingman Harrison Barnes, who was on the AP's preseason All-American team, is coming off his two best games of the year, a 25-point outing in their 84-64 win over NC State followed by a 26-point outing against the Eagles. Barnes will be matched up against FSU's Chris Singleton, the ACC's reigning defensive player of the year.
"I think we'll be fine guarding (Barnes). We are the best defensive team in the nation (FSU leads the naiton in field goal percentage defense at 35.5 percent)," Snaer said. "There is pretty much nothing one person can do to break our team down."
Hamilton is more wary of what kind of damage the Tar Heels can do as a team. Six of their players are averaging between 7-13 points a game, including a pair of talented forwards that come off the bench, freshman Reggie Bullock (7.5 ppg) and sophomore Leslie McDonald (7.5 ppg). A pair of productive big men, 6-10 John Henson (10.9 ppg and 3.0 blocks per game) and 7-footer Tyler Zeller (14.0 ppg) give the Tar Heels plenty of effective size to utilize on the interior as well.
"They've had other guys step up," Hamliton said. "Henson and Zeller have been productive. They still have a lot of McDonald's All-American's. Barnes has gotten most of the publicity but we sure don't want to overlook those other guys who are also capable of scoring 20 points."
Florida State will likely be without sophomore power forward Terrance Shannon, who underwent knee surgery on Friday, for the second straight game. Freshman Okaro White started in his place against Wake.
The biggest key for the 'Noles may be slowing down the Tar Heels' fast-paced offense and limiting their fast-break points, something they have thrived on since Roy Williams took over the program in 2003-04.
"They got a good running team, they got their guards pushing and their bigs are rebounding hard," Snaer said. "We just got to to get matched up in transition and make them play halfcourt basketball. We've been going over their offensive and defensive plays all week. I feel like nothing they have should rattle us. We should be fine."
WHAT TO LOOK FOR:
These teams are fairly similar. Both of their strengths are on the front line where they often use their size and athleticism to dominate on the glass (Florida State ranks first in the ACC in rebounding margin and UNC ranks second). But, they both struggle to shoot from the outside. The bad news for FSU is that Barnes is starting to play like a star and gain confidence. Singleton will likely be able to slow him down, but scoring on the road has been a big problem for FSU. They need a great game from big man Bernard James since Shannon's absence will likely leave the 'Noles with just two post players (7-footer Jon Kreft is the other) and someone must slow down Henson and Zeller. Look for FSU to play much better than their last road game at Clemson, but ultimately they won't be able to keep up on the scoreboard. We'll say UNC wins 75-67.
WHO'S HOT FOR THE SEMINOLES:
James is shooting 73.3 percent (33 of 45) from the floor in ACC games … Guard Deividas Dulkys is coming off a 16-point outing off the bench that included 4-of-8 shooting from 3-point range … Freshman guard Ian Miller has made 50 percent (5-of-10) of his 3-point attempts in his last two games.
WHO'S HOT FOR THE TAR HEELS:
Barnes has shot 61 percent (19 of 31) from the field while scoring 51 points in his last two games … Henson has scored in double figures in five of his last six games … Bullock came off the bench to score 16 points and hit 4-of-7 three-pointers in their last game against Boston College.
FSU's 6-foot-11 center Xavier Gibson (6.9 ppg, 4.8 rpg) has participated in the team's last three practices and Hamilton wouldn't rule out the possibility of him playing at UNC. Gibson hasn't played since suffering a broken hand and torn MCL in the Diamond Head Classic tournament in Hawaii on Dec. 23.
UNC point guard Larry Drew (4.4 ppg, 3.9 apg) announced he was leaving the team on Thursday. Drew lost his starting job to Marshall last month.
FSU has won three of if its last five games against ranked ACC foes (one of those was on the road at Georgia Tech last season).
The Seminoles are looking for their second straight win at the Dean Smith Center for the first time in school history.
FSU (28-16) is the second-winningest program in ACC play over the last three seasons. Duke (36-9) ranks first over that period and UNC (25-17) is third.