BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP)—It’s not often an ACC school like Florida State gets mid-major envy. Then again, Gonzaga’s basketball program has developed the kind of reputation that makes most schools blush.
That was the case for Seminoles coach Leonard Hamilton on Thursday. With a work-in-progress objective to build Florida State into a consistent winner, Hamilton was eager to see how his team stacks up against the Bulldogs in the opening round of the NCAA tournament on Friday.
“I told our players, I can’t think of a better bracket to be in than to play against them,” Hamilton said. “I know this is going to be a challenge. But that’s what excites you.”
For Hamilton, merely being seeded ninth in the West Regional—one spot behind Gonzaga—was enough to feel “honored.”
Florida State (22-9) is making its second consecutive tournament appearance and only its third since 1998.
By comparison, the West Coast Conference perennial powerhouse Bulldogs (26-6) earned their 12th straight trip, this time as an at-large selection after an 81-62 loss to St. Mary’s in the conference championship game on March 8.
For the Bulldogs, the two-week stretch between games is a long time to spend stomaching such a disappointing loss.
“That St. Mary’s loss, it hurt pretty bad,” senior guard Matt Bouldin said. “We look at this as an opportunity to improve on things. It gives us a chance to respond.”
Getting this far is considered a bit of a surprise for the Bulldogs, who were supposed to be entering a bit of a rebuilding season. Coach Mark Few didn’t know what to expect when he opened the season with a starting lineup that, aside from Bouldin, featured two sophomores and a freshman guard in Elias Harris, a highly regarded recruit out Germany.
Harris has blossomed into a star. He’s second on the team averaging 14.7 points and leading the team in rebounding (7.2).
Gonzaga got off to a 17-3 start, a run that included sweeping all three games of the EA Sports Maui Invitational in Hawaii. More notably, the Bulldogs’ three losses came against Michigan State, Duke and Wake Forest.
“This is probably the least experienced group of guys we’ve ever embarked on a season with,” Few said. “They’ve really grown a lot during the course of the year. It’s something we’re very proud of.”
Florida State presents an unlikely test for Gonzaga, considering it’s the first meeting between the two schools, who appear to be as far apart in styles and basketball tradition as they are in geography.
Led by Bouldin, a John Wooden Award candidate who’s averaging 15.8 points a game, the Bulldogs rely on a fast-paced offense. They’re particularly efficient in making shots, with a 49.4 percent field-goal percentage that ranks sixth in the nation.
The Seminoles’ strength is a stingy defense that ranks first in the nation in limiting opponents to a 40.4 percent field-goal percentage. Florida State hasn’t allowed any of its past 67 opponents to shoot 50 percent or better.
It’s a defense led by sophomore forwards Solomon Alabi and Chris Singleton. Alabi leads the team with 12.3 points per game and is second in rebounds (6.7). Singleton leads the team in rebounds (7.1).
The Seminoles are attempting to rebound from last year’s tournament appearance, when they were knocked out in the first round with a 61-59 overtime loss to 12th-seeded Wisconsin.
“It was just the last 10 minutes, we buckled under pressure,” Singleton said. “It was a big stage for us. We had never been there. This year we all know what to do.”
The Seminoles have been inconsistent, going 9-7 in their last 16 games, including a 58-52 loss to North Carolina State in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament.
All of that can be erased now that they’re in the NCAAs.
“We made it to the tournament. It’s a good achievement,” Alabi said. “We want to get a win in this tournament and prove to the nation that we have a pretty good program going on at Florida State.”
The Seminoles’ defense is good, but it doesn’t intimidate Gonzaga junior guard Steven Gray, who credited the Bulldogs’ grueling schedule with preparing the team for anything.
“Over the years, we’ve played Duke a couple of times, North Carolina a couple of times,” Gray said. “I do think that definitely helps and puts us on a more even plane in that respect.”