7:00 PM EST, ESPN – Line: Duke -6.5, Over/Under: 155
As the final week of ACC Regular Season play is among us the race for first place will narrow considerably, as tonight’s meeting between the Fifteenth-Ranked Florida State Seminoles and the Seventeenth-Ranked Duke Blue Devils at Cameron Indoor Stadium could very well drop the former out of contention altogether. Florida State (23-6, 11-5 in ACC) currently finds themselves in a three-way deadlock with both Louisville and Notre Dame, as each team trails league-leading North Carolina by two games in conference play, and a loss tonight will drop them out of the running for their first league title in program history. Needless to say, this is quite a significant contest for the Seminoles, who are enjoying their finest campaign in years, as Leonard Hamilton has his charges headed back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in four years. After a 4-0 start to league play, it’s been a bit of a mixed bag for this group who have gone 7-5 over their last twelve outings, though enter tonight’s tilt with the Blue Devils winners of two straight. Last Tuesday they ran roughshod over last-place Boston College in a 104-72 thrashing in Tallahassee, but very nearly threw it all away Saturday with a narrow 76-74 escape at Clemson. As good as they’ve been at home this season, Florida State has struggled mightily on the road, particularly against ACC competition where they have won just twice in seven games away from Donald L. Tucker Center. The visiting side led throughout the night, holding onto a 69-64 lead with just over four minutes left to play, only to see the Tigers rally to take a 74-73 advantage. Then, with 1:22 remaining Junior Guard Xavier Rathan-Mayes (10.3 PTS, 45.9% FG, 3.1 REB, 5.0 AST, 1.0 STL) hit the go-ahead score to take the lead, followed by a Free-Throw to stretch the difference to two points. At that juncture, it was up to Freshman Forward Jonathan Isaac (12.8 PTS, 53.1% FG, 37.8% 3FG, 7.3 REB, 1.0 AST, 1.2 STL, 1.5 BLK), who swatted away a potential game-tying layup with eleven seconds left, ultimately sealing the deal. By the end of the day, Rathan-Mayes scored a team-high fifteen points (thirteen in the Second Half) to go along with four rebounds, seven assists, and a steal, while the aforementioned Isaac totaled fourteen points, three rebounds, an assist, and that crucial block. In addition to earning a significant moral victory on the road, Saturday’s triumph also marked their twenty-third win this season, marking the first time that they’ve reached that threshold since the 2008-2009 term. Tall, long, and athletic, these Seminoles figure to be a tough out in the Postseason, even if they haven’t been as staunch on the defensive end as they’ve been in the past. This particular incarnation are one of the better offensive teams in the Atlantic Coast Conference, ranking second in the league in scoring (80.8), mostly on the strength of getting to the rim, where they shoot a stellar 52.1% from within the three-point arc (2nd in ACC). Furthermore, their aggressive mentality translates to a wealth of opportunities from the charity stripe, where even though they don’t shoot all that well (66.6%, 13th in ACC), they make up for it in volume, attempting 23.4 Free-Throws per Game, most in the conference. Sophomore Guard Dwayne Bacon (16.6 PTS, 43.8% FG, 36.8% 3FG, 3.9 REB, 1.8 AST, 1.0 STL) has been the most prolific in this regard, attempting a team-best 110 free-throws thus far. The Seminoles’ leading scorer must find a way to right the ship after a stretch in which he’s struggled to find his rhythm; Bacon has been relegated below 40.0% shooting from the field in five of his last six outings, including just 3-of-14 (21.4%) overall, and 1-of-6 from downtown (16.7%) in the win over Clemson.
Meanwhile, after a seven-game wining streak coinciding with the healthy return of their Hall of Fame Head Coach, many around the basketball world proclaimed that Duke (22-7, 10-6 in ACC) was peaking at the right time, and should be labeled as one of the favorites to win the National Championship. Indeed, it was the best of times in Durham, as Mike Krzyzewski returned from a four-week absence rehabbing from back surgery, the highly-touted Freshmen Class, particularly Jayson Tatum (16.4 PTS, 45.6% FG, 38.0% 3FG, 7.3 REB, 2.2 AST, 1.1 STL, 1.0 BLK in ACC Play), finally looked to be coming of age, and even the overblown tripping controversy surrounding Grayson Allen (15.0 PTS, 38.8% FG, 34.6% 3FG, 4.2 REB, 3.8 AST) appeared to be fading into the background. In the midst of that stretch, they even knocked off arch rival North Carolina in a widely competitive 86-78 victory back on February 9th, ascending to Second Place in the League Table, trailing the Tar Heels by a single game with a week left in the Regular Season. And then Syracuse happened. Last Thursday, the surging Blue Devils traveled to the Carrier Dome to face the unranked Orange (17-13), stumbling their way through a disappointing campaign, with very little to play for outside of the role of spoiler. Leading 33-25 at Halftime, the visitors looked to be well on their way to an eighth straight win, but miraculously relinquished that lead and then some, as the home side outscored them 53-42 over the final twenty minutes of play. With less than a minute remaining, Luke Kennard’s (19.9 PTS, 50.8% FG, 45.6% 3FG, 5.2 REB, 2.6 AST) attempted game-winner fell short as Syracuse (without timeouts) rebounded the basketball, pushed up the court where John Gillon banked in the game-winner five feet beyond the three-point arc to pull the upset. Duke’s defense betrayed them greatly in this one, as the hosts shot a stellar 53.2% from the field, while knocking down 22-of-25 Free-Throws (88.8%). Unfortunately, matters would not improve later in the week, as Coach K’s troops sluggishly fell on the road at Miami (FL) in a 55-50 defeat. Duke was physically manhandled Saturday, outscored 40-20 in the Paint, en route to being held thirty-two points below their scoring average on the season. Krzyzewski held the aforementioned Allen out of the action, as the Junior Guard rested an ailing ankle and helplessly watched his teammates shoot a dreadful 31.8% from the floor, including 5-of-21 from beyond the arc (23.8%), committing four more turnovers (thirteen) than they had assists (nine). It remains to be seen whether or not Allen or Senior Forward Amile Jefferson will be available tonight, as the latter was limited to just five minutes of action in the Second Half of the weekend’s affair as the Coaching Staff looks to bring him back slowly in his return from injury. Of course, sitting three games out of the ACC Lead has likely changed Coach K’s focus towards simply getting healthy for the NCAA Tournament, meaning we highly doubt he’ll push these kids too much if they are legitimately hurt. However, there’s no doubt that he could use both tonight for when these teams met in Tallahassee back on January 10th, the Seminoles housed them in an 88-72 beatdown, in which the visiting Devils shot just 41.1% from the floor, including 7-of-24 from three (29.2%), while turning the ball over sixteen times and getting outrebounded 35-27. This was one of those aforementioned tilts in which Allen tripped an opponent, and was sent to the Bench early after proving otherwise ineffective with just nine points on 2-of-6 shooting overall (33.3%), while Jefferson was sidelined due to injury.