March 20, 2011
CHICAGO (AP) – Notre Dame is deep, with the BIG EAST player of the year and three others averaging in double figures.
It can shoot the 3 as well as almost anyone in the country.
It doesn’t turn the ball over.
It’s well-behaved, too, not giving away many free points with fouls.
Have fun with that, Florida State.
“They present an awful lot of problems for teams, especially us, because they have such a diverse offensive system that challenges all your defensive principles,” Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said Saturday. “We have to make sure we’re sound and try to make as few mistakes as we can.”
Or just harass the heck out of the second-seeded Irish (27-6) when the teams meet in the third round of the NCAA tournament Sunday night.
The 10th-seeded Seminoles (22-10) have the nation’s stingiest defense, allowing just 36 percent shooting. They’re holding opponents to less than 62 points a game, and limited Texas A&M to 50 in Friday’s second-round game. It has one guy seemingly bigger than the next, and even their guards are rebound hounds.
Oh, and that vaunted Duke team? Florida State was responsible for one of its four losses. Only North Carolina and Duke fared better in the ACC than the Seminoles this year.
“They’re as tough as any 10 seed that I’ve seen,” said Tim Abromaitis, Notre Dame’s second-leading scorer. “They’re as big and physical as pretty much any team in the country. Obviously, that’s going to pose a lot of issues for us.”
Notre Dame has made it to the second weekend of the NCAA tournament one time in the last 24 years, losing to top-seeded Arizona in the regional semifinals in 2003. Few expected great things from this group – it’s hard to replace a player like Luke Harangody, Notre Dame’s leading rebounder and scorer last year – but this has turned out to be a special team.
All five starters are seniors (Abromaitis is actually a grad student), and the Irish play with a maturity that coaches dream of. They have won 13 of their last 15, with BIG EAST player of the year Ben Hansbrough averaging 21.9 points, 5.1 assists and 4.4 rebounds during the stretch.
“They make very few mistakes. They make good decisions with the ball,” Hamilton said. “They’re familiar with just about every scenario that’s been thrown at them and they’ll make adjustments on the fly. So we have to make sure we’re sound and try to make as few mistakes as we can.
“Teams that are very smart and execute well and understand the system, as well as being a mature team, they take advantage of every mistake you make.”
But the Irish will have a tough time matching Florida State’s size, particularly now that Chris Singleton is back. The 6-foot-9 forward, Florida State’s leading scorer and rebounder, returned Friday after missing the last month with a broken right foot. He wasn’t his sharpest, finishing with five points and four fouls, and Hamilton doesn’t know how much more he’ll play against Notre Dame.
Singleton is a tenacious defender, though, and the possibility of him guarding Hansbrough is enough to make the game worth watching. His wingspan, which rivals a small plane, means the Irish have one more person they have to account for around the basket, too.
“The reason why we are where we are is we’ve rebounded the first miss very consistently this year. We didn’t for 40 minutes, but eventually we did,” Irish coach Mike Brey said. “For Florida State, though, you’re going to have to do it for closer to 40 minutes to beat them because they just get so much on missed shots, and they have so many guys that can chase it down.”
Hamilton’s teams are never going to be pretty or offensive juggernauts. They start and finish with defense, and players who pride themselves on shooting or don’t like structure best find another place to play. Defensive fundamentals are stressed from the minute a player signs, and Hamilton and his staff work on them relentlessly.
Practices are often exercises in offensive frustration. No one wants to be seen as the weak link, shot-blocking specialist Bernard James said, so the Seminoles guard each other so tightly there are days it seems as if nobody scores.
“They’re explosive on defense, which not a lot of teams are,” Notre Dame’s Scott Martin said. “They all have a nose for the ball, whether it’s shot-blocking or stealing or anything like that. It’ll be fun for us to see a little bit different look than we’re used to.”
When Brey came back to watch the last part of Florida State’s victory over Texas A&M, he was immediately reminded of Syracuse. That wasn’t a good thing, considering the Orange beat the Irish 70-58 on Jan. 1 and forced them into 15 turnovers.
But his players thought the Seminoles were more like Connecticut, a team Notre Dame beat twice this year.
“It’s not like we’ve haven’t faced it before in the BIG EAST, big guys who try to do their work over us,” Tyrone Nash said. “We’re used to it, and we’re ready for it.”