All about the ACC: FSU a title contender

Meet the new front-runners in the ACC title chase: It’s Florida State, which opened league play by getting spanked by 20 at Clemson.

OK, perhaps we’re overstating the case a bit. But Florida State just finished one of the best weeks in school history and has to be taken seriously as a league championship contender.

A week after eviscerating North Carolina by 33 in Tallahassee, the Seminoles shocked Duke 76-73 on Saturday, ending Duke’s 45-game home winning streak. It was the second-longest such streak in school history.

Leonard Hamilton and Florida State showed they can win the ACC title after a victory at Duke on Saturday.
(US Presswire)

FSU has won four in a row since losing to Clemson, and the reason the Seminoles should be mentioned as a legit ACC title contender is that they don’t play UNC again and get Duke in Tallahassee on Feb. 23.

“It was a big win for us as we try to continue to keep becoming a program of significance, not only in the ACC but on a national basis,” Seminoles coach Leonard Hamilton said after the upset.

FSU went into the season with relatively lofty expectations, not surprising considering it made it to the Elite Eight before falling to VCU in last season’s NCAA tourney. But the Seminoles had a rocky start, losing three times in late November and also dropping a home game in late December to Princeton, which is 8-8.

Then came the conference-opening debacle at Clemson, which dropped FSU’s record to 9-6.

But the Seminoles have regrouped since that setback. Defense is a constant with Hamilton-coached teams, and that aspect has been solid all season, even in the losses. But the offense has picked up of late, with FSU averaging 78.3 points and shooting 47.8 percent from the field during the winning streak; the season averages are 72.0 and 45.4, respectively.

“They’re really good,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said after Saturday’s game. “It’s no question about that. We knew it coming in and we know it going out. Even if we had won, they’re really good.

“They’re not really good because they beat us; they’re just really good. They can play with anybody.”

The Seminoles are a big team. Nine guys average double-figure minutes, and seven of them are at least 6 feet 5. FSU owns a plus-4.9 rebound margin

“Florida State is just a tough, tough team to play,” Duke forward Miles Plumlee told reporters Saturday. “They’re big and long and physical, and they keep coming at you.”

One aspect that must improve is FSU’s ballhandling. The Seminoles have 99 more turnovers than assists (330 to 231), and the disparity was glaringly bad in losses to Harvard (five assists, 19 turnovers) and Florida (nine assists, 19 turnovers) and a win over Massachusetts (seven assists, 23 turnovers).

The victory over Duke was just the second time this season the Seminoles had more assists than turnovers. The good news: It also was the second time in a row, as an impressive midweek victory over Maryland featured 12 assists and a season-low nine turnovers. FSU had 15 assists and 12 turnovers against Duke.

The starting point man is senior Luke Loucks. His workload has increased dramatically this season; he averaged 14.8 minutes last season but now is at 27.7.

“We have been working real hard to just learn how to play within ourselves,” Hamilton said Saturday. “We are still in transition. We have a lot of room for improvement. We kind of are growing up on the job.”

Photo gallery [Slideshow: FSU stuns Duke in Cameron]

Loucks is one of seven players averaging between 7.3 and 13.5 points per game, and that balanced attack has proved hard to defend of late. The leading scorer is junior guard Michael Snaer, who hit the winning 3-pointer Sunday. Snaer has more offensive freedom this season and seems to be growing into that role, taking fewer but also better shots. He has hit 48.6 percent of his shots in the past three games, a 6.4-percent increase over his season average.

FSU’s RPI has increased dramatically in the past two weeks. It was 86th after the loss to Clemson, but the Seminoles had climbed to 24th after Saturday’s games.

FSU has two of the league’s weakest teams next, traveling to Wake Forest on Wednesday and playing host to Georgia Tech on Feb. 1, which means the Seminoles should be 6-1 in league play when Virginia visits Tallahassee on Feb. 4. Despite beating UNC and Duke in one week, FSU players realize there still is work to do.

“After the jubilation and jumping around in the locker room, the whole speech was that we’re not finished,” Loucks told reporters. “We only have four ACC wins right now, and that’s not going to get us into the [NCAA] tournament.”

3 to watch

Duke at Maryland, Wednesday, 9 p.m., ESPN: Expect a more defense-minded Blue Devils team on the floor Wednesday. Maryland is 10-1 at home this season, but truth be told, the Terps really haven’t beaten anyone of note.

North Carolina State at North Carolina, Thursday, 7 p.m., ESPN: The Wolfpack (15-5) are looking for a marquee win, and what better place to get it than Chapel Hill? UNC has won nine in a row in the series and hasn’t lost at home to the Wolfpack since Feb. 25, 2003.

Virginia at North Carolina State, Saturday, 8 p.m., ESPN2: The second of two big back-to-back games for N.C. State. This will be the teams’ only meeting this season. UVa is 4-1 on the road, with the only loss coming by three at Duke.

Who’s hot?

North Carolina C Tyler Zeller: Zeller is averaging 16.0 points, 10.8 rebounds and 2.3 blocks in four league games. He is shooting 59.5 percent from the floor and 82.4 percent from the line in conference action.

Maryland G Terrell Stoglin: He leads the ACC in scoring at 21.2 points per game and is hitting 46.4 percent from 3-point range in his past eight games. Only one other Terp is averaging more than 10 points, and Stoglin’s average is the highest of anyone in the “Big Six” conferences.

N.C. State G Lorenzo Brown: In his past 11 games, Brown is averaging 7.7 assists and 12.6 points. He has had at least eight assists six times in that span, and his assist-to-turnover ratio in that time is 2.5-to-1.

Who’s not?

Duke’s defense: It’s noticeably weaker than it was last season. Florida State shot 54.0 percent from the floor in beating the Blue Devils on Saturday, and Duke has allowed its opponents to hit 44.1 percent of their shots this season, meaning the Blue Devils have the worst field goal percentage defense in the league and the 221st nationally. In its three losses, Duke has allowed opponents to shoot 56.7 percent. Noteworthy also is that foes have hit at least 50 percent of their 3-point attempts in those three losses.

Boston College’s offense: The Eagles are last in the league in scoring at 61.2 points and have zero players – that’s none – averaging in double figures. BC has scored more than 67 points just three times in 19 games and has scored 60 or fewer eight times.

Georgia Tech G Glen Rice Jr.: He scored 19 points in Saturday’s loss to Clemson, but he still is averaging just 10.7 points in his past three games. He shot 36.7 percent from the field and just 25.0 percent from 3-point range in those contests. Tech lost all three games.

Good win last week

Florida State 76, Duke 73: We talked about this in the opening section. That it was in Durham made it even more notable.

Bad loss last week

Virginia 70, Georgia Tech 38: Tech isn’t an NCAA team; heck, it’s not even an NIT team. But 38 points in a home game? Embarrassing.

Numbers game

N.C. State swingman Scott Wood was 7-of-7 from the line in the Wolfpack’s win at Miami on Sunday, and he has hit 60 consecutive attempts from the charity stripe. That’s an ACC record; former Duke star J.J. Redick had made 54 in a row in 2003-04.

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Mike Huguenin is a Yahoo! Sports college sports editor. Send Mike a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Sunday, Jan 22, 2012