March Madness 2018: Florida State's Syracuse-like edge helps Seminoles upset Gonzaga

FSU's tenacious defense has it playing in the Elite Eight.

LOS ANGELES — On one hand, Florida State is not Syracuse. It doesn’t snow much (at all?) in Tallahassee, there aren’t any manatees in western New York and the Seminoles’ football program has had a bit more success.

But on the other hand, Florida State is definitely Syracuse.

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See, Syracuse has the zone. Jim Boeheim’s teams have perfected his version of the 2-3 zone, a defensive alignment that drives teams crazy in the NCAA Tournament. Teams outside the ACC are not used to it, and no amount of practices against a scout team will prepare them to handle what the Orange is throwing at them in the pressure of a tournament game.

On Friday, Syracuse, as an 11-seed, is playing for the right to advance to the Elite Eight. In 2016, Syracuse made the Final Four as a 10 seed. In 2013, the Orange made the Final Four as a 4 seed, knocking off a 1-seed and a 3-seed along the way. There’s a reason for that pattern. When the NCAA Tournament rolls around, the zone is Syracuse’s edge, its ace-up-the-sleeve.

Like its ACC rival, this Florida State team has an edge, too, an ace that teams just can’t prepare for in practice. Length. Size. Athleticism. But mostly, the length.

“The more I watched them,” Gonzaga coach Mark Few told reporters after his fourth-seeded Bulldogs fell to the ninth-seeded Seminoles, “I got a bad feeling in my stomach.”

Turns out, his gut was right. Gonzaga never looked comfortable on Thursday night in Los Angeles, and his team lost to Florida State, 75-60.

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Seminoles coach Leonard Hamilton — who is making his Elite Eight debut on Saturday — always has a couple of 7-footers on his roster. But the length problem isn’t just about the tallest guys on the roster.

“I know if I was playing our team, I would be scared by the height,” Florida State senior Phil Cofer told SN. “Having that person inside with the height and the people outside with long arms, that really dismantles teams. That’s really been helping us on the defensive side.”

Gonzaga was shooting 50.2 percent from the field as a team, but the Bulldogs shot just 33.9 percent for the game. They shot 37.1 percent from 3-point range heading into this game, but made only 5 of 20 attempts from deep (it hurt not having Killian Tillie, of course).

When you’re not used to a team as long as Florida State, that matters. And the Seminoles know it. “Definitely. We contest every shot,” 7-foot freshman Ike Obiagu said.

“You’ve going to think you’re wide-open, and still someone is going to contest it. I think that’s useful to us, our length and athleticism.”
Think about this: Florida State blocked nine Gonzaga shots on Thursday, and six different players had at least one block. Everybody gets in your way.

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Not just with shots, either. A lot of Gonzaga’s struggles came with issues just moving the ball around the perimeter. The Florida State players love a deflected pass almost as much as a blocked shot, and that relentlessness showed against the Zags.

“That’s just a part of our defensive principles,” Trent Forrest said. “The thing we like to do is play passing lanes, and I feel like that disrupted them a lot.”

Few agreed.

“They denied Perk (Josh Perkins) the ball a lot, so we had to initiate our offense a lot with Johnathan Williams,” Few said. “He did a nice job bringing it up. But it just took us out of rhythm a little bit.”

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The Zags never really found that rhythm. There were four Sweet 16 games played on Thursday, and the ninth-seeded Seminoles joined an unlikely group in the Elite Eight: 11-seed Loyola-Chicago, 9-seed Kansas State and 3-seed Michigan (ok, Michigan wasn’t unlikely).

“That’s just really crazy. That’s March Madness,” Cofer told SN with a grin. “I’ve never seen anything like it. EVerybody’s just fighting until the last minute, and that’s what happens. I think if you give it all you’ve got, it doesn’t matter what the name on the jersey is. It’s the people who fight the hardest.”