Virginia was bound to punch back. Trailing by 20 at the half, it was reasonable to expect a national championship coach, Tony Bennett, to make adjustments. With 20 minutes to go, the game was far from over.
Kihei Clark is almost always the shortest player on the court but he’s also the toughest to guard. He used his speed to drive to the rim for four quick baskets. And at one point, FSU’s lead was down to seven, 48-41, with 14:24 to go. But the Seminoles made some clutch baskets, including a pair of 3-pointers by Sardaar Calhoun. Balsa Koprivica knocked down an 18-footer and then a 3-pointer (phenomenally his first college 3-point attempt and he drilled it).
Yes, Florida State has pulled off bigger upsets. Wins over top-10 teams are no longer unexpected, not with where Leonard Hamilton and the staff have this program. But, yes, it also should feel good for fans to see the new bloods knock off an ACC blue blood — especially in a year where media and basketball analysts had argued that the league’s top tier consisted of just Virginia, followed by the likes of FSU and Virginia Tech in the second tier as well as a mashup of the rest of the programs.
Bennett’s Cavaliers are considered one of the top teams in the nation. Virginia rarely loses, only dropping a game in December (No. 1 Gonzaga) and another in January (rival and top-25 foe Virginia Tech). Bennett praised the Seminoles, who switch one through five off screens — meaning a forward like RaiQuan Gray or even center Balsa Koprivica could defend an opposing guard.
“Their athleticism and size is real,” Bennett said. “They kind of switch positions.”
What did Monday night remind us? FSU is capable of battling and knocking off the nation’s best teams. Depth allows the Seminoles to sustain its push, even though every team will have some sluggish moments in-game. Don’t forget about the coaching job FSU’s staff has done, from Hamilton through assistants Stan Jones, Charlton Young and Steve Smith. Long known as a group that recruits and develops, it’s a program that wins consistently.
Regardless of what the rankings or bracketologists say, this is a dangerous team capable of making a run in March. Don’t get too caught up in rankings — when the Seminoles were 7-2 following a win over UNC on Jan. 16, they were 25th in the coaches’ poll and unranked by the AP. Now it’s Feb. 16 and FSU is 16th in both bolls but poised to vault even higher. And don’t get caught up in the bracketology, whether FSU is better than the current projections as a No. 4 or No. 5 seed. Enjoy watching the team, its maturation and improvement.
Here are three things that were reinforced by FSU’s 81-60 win on Monday.
Gray is NBA-ready
RaiQuan Gray’s last seven games have been nothing short of impressive. Beginning with the UNC game, one month ago, he has scored 19, 17, 11, 10, 19, 24 and 15 points. He has also had eight or more rebounds in four of the games as well as three blocks vs. Wake, three steals vs. UNC and at Ga. Tech and has knocked down 31 of 37 (83.7 percent) of his free-throw attempts. If the ACC gave out a player of the month award, instead of just the weekly honors, Gray would be a leading contender for the Jan. 16-Feb. 15 window.
“My coaches do a great job of putting me in positions to make plays,” Gray said. “They know my strengths and weaknesses. Also give me opportunities and freedom to make plays. They know what I am capable of. My teammates also do a great job of finding me in certain situations. … My coaches and watching film.”
Gray will deflect praise, thank his coaches and teammates but his story is emblematic of the type of player FSU’s staff loves. He is unselfish, redshirting as a freshman. In 2018-19, he saw significant minutes in the NCAA Tournament and had 11 points and five steals against Murray State. His numbers in 2019-20 were better (6 points, 3.8 rebounds). He has slimmed down and gotten into the best shape of his life for the 2020-21 season, his redshirt junior year. And all of it is for a three-day stretch like this: the 6-foot-8 Gray logged 37 minutes in an overtime win over Wake on Saturday and then plays 28 minutes on Monday in a high-energy victory over Virginia.
What is impressive about Gray is he does a little bit of everything: scoring, rebounding, passing, defense. He dribbles like a point forward. He has a variety of shots — a consistent jumper, a confident driver and uses the glass quite well, too. It may be a stretch to call him a first-round pick, especially given the quantity of European stars who are virtual unknowns until the summer. But Gray is graduating in a few months and is a tough one-on-one matchup. His draft stock is skyrocketing. Which brings us to the next player.
Koprivica’s value is immense
Koprivica is a 7-foot-1 sophomore center but has the footwork, shooting ability and moves of a small forward. When he took a 3-pointer on Monday, with the shot clock winding down, it definitely didn’t feel like an ideal result of a halfcourt possession. But Hamilton said he makes them in practice and Koprivica didn’t back down from the moment.
His improvement from his first months on campus is quite clear. He has been viewed as a scorer but, with increased playing time, has shown his ability go grab rebounds (seven games with seven or more boards) and his value as a rim protector was underscored on Monday. Without Koprivica, Wake was able to get some easy drives. And while he played just 14 minutes against Virginia, it was obvious when he was in the game and when he wasn’t on the defensive end. Clark found easy routes to the basket when Koprivica was standing and watching from the sideline. But with Koprivica in the game, he blocked Clark and altered shots or forced passes.
“I thought that he was eager to play and played well,” Hamilton said. “He made a big block there in the second half and he sent a message. He was confident that he wanted to contribute. Just to have him, with his hands and presence around the basket is a part of who we are.”
Bench play is pivotal
For all the conversation about M.J. Walker, Scottie Barnes, Gray and Koprivica, FSU wins games because of its depth and quality of the bench. Nine players logged 12 or more minutes against Virginia. Simply put, Hamilton has confidence in the veterans as well as newcomers like Barnes, Calhoun (a junior-college transfer) and Tanor Ngom (a transfer center).
It’s worth underscoring that Barnes and Koprivica came off the bench on Monday. Koprivica has started and been a reserve, same with Barnes. To Hamilton, it doesn’t matter. But it is evident Barnes is more comfortable coming off the bench. Koprivica will likely be a starter again down the road. Whether starting or coming off the bench, nine or more Seminoles will play relevant minutes.
Anthony Polite was an early substitution, often guarding Clark (who didn’t have a point in the first half). Barnes also guarded Clark, and his wingspan bothered the Virginia guard. Calhoun had two timely 3-pointers. Polite had eight points, two assists and two steals. Barnes had seven points, six assists, two rebounds and two steals. Tanor Ngom played nearly eight minutes and had four points, four rebounds and a block. The bench outscored Virginia’s reserves 37-20 but the rebounds, assists and defense add up, too.
“The quality of our depth really, really was a plus for us tonight,” Hamilton said.
But the reality is that’s the case every night.