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Column: Turnovers a concern but a factor FSU can overcome

Never trust a basketball prediction made on a football podcast but prognosticating about basketball is exactly what Pat Burnham and I did on last week’s Osceola podcast. Pat predicted the Seminoles would reach the NCAA Final Four. My prediction wasn’t quite the crowd pleaser as I had the Seminoles going only as far as the Sweet 16. Let me explain why I pulled up short and why I think Pat may have it right. 

Here’s my traditional logic. A traditional football team can go only go as far as its quarterback can take it and I believe traditional basketball teams are equally dependent on their point guard, who is the quarterback of the team, the floor general, the guy who pushes the tempo or throttles it back. 

If you don’t have a veteran at the helm, you are likely to have a lot of turnovers (which FSU does), interceptions and sacks.

The one exception to this traditional rule of sports is when you have a damn good defense and Leonard Hamilton does, which gives this non-traditional Florida State team a chance to beat Michigan – a No. 1 seed – on Sunday at 5 p.m. (CBS) to advance to the Elite Eight.

What has given me pause about this FSU team is that it does not have the traditional trigger man, the Trent Forrest or the Charlie Ward, a guy who can read a defense, instinctively know where to find the open man, and the ability to make a difficult pass into a tight space. When you don’t have that guy, your offense is limited by sacks, interceptions and turnovers. 

Most of the grumbling about FSU (basketball or football) is the Seminoles are beating themselves with turnovers. In the ACC Tournament Championship loss to Georgia Tech, FSU had 20-plus turnovers and on the season have averaged 15 per game, which will get most teams beat.

The difference between this year and last, as it pertains to turnovers, is this team does not have a seasoned point guard with the experience to make that instinctive pass to a guy wearing a jersey of our team’s color. It doesn’t help that FSU plays 11 guys, so your freshman point guard Scottie Barnes isn’t getting 30-plus minutes with the same four guys. 

FSU’s 6-foot-9 freshman phenom has not yet developed the savvy Ward and Forrest developed over their four-year careers, nor should we have expected him to do so in his first season at point guard. Rayquan Evans’ struggles down the stretch in his senior season haven’t helped either. Evans is 0 for 9 from the floor since the Notre Dame game with six assists and six turnovers.

The Seminole fans’ answer to the turnover problem: Just don’t do it. But I don’t think a leopard can change its spots. 

Leonard would have fixed it weeks ago if he could but he knows he has a leopard with different spots than last year’s team and is smart enough to know you gotta dance with the one you brung.

Leonard has brung a leopard who is naturally prone to turn it over but one who can play defense with the very best of them. If I were in Leonard’s shoes, or should I say boot, I’d continue to mention reducing turnovers but I would emphasize defensive stops to reduce points after turnover.

While reducing the number of turnovers in the GT game would have been helpful, it was the 31 points after turnover that lost the game and this team is better capable of reducing point after turnovers.

Why? Because FSU is a great defensive team, a really, really great team. They make up for their lack of ball management with length that pays dividends on defense. The Noles may giveth but they also taketh away.

The Seminoles are the tallest team in the NCAA tournament, averaging just over 6-foot-8, largely because they have the 6-9 Barnes and 6-8 RaiQuan Gray playing the point rather than the more traditional 6-3 floor general.

“You can simulate certain things in preparing for Florida State, but you cannot simulate their length,” Colorado head coach Tad Boyle said after the ’Noles bumfuzzled the Buffs. 

“We knew they were going to pressure us. I did a bad job preparing our team for the pressure that was coming. We’ve faced pressure before, and we’ve faced switching defenses before and we’ve handled it better before.”

Boyle can kick himself all he wants but the reality is no basketball coach has a scout squad long enough to simulate what FSU does defensively. Nor is his scout squad bench as long as the Seminole bench, which comes at you in unrelenting waves. 

Hamilton recruits and demands defense and rotates players frequently enough that his leopard never loses its legs. Players, like Balsa Koprivica, told me he signed with Leonard because he wants to become a better defensive player. When a defensive-minded coach like Hamilton accumulates elite talent who are willing to work to become better defensive players, are unselfish and have the legs to play with passion, you give yourself a chance to win even when you are beating yourself with turnovers.

If the Seminoles bring enough sneaker squeak to manage points after turnover, which is what brung them to the dance in the first place, they can fulfill Burnham’s Final Four prognostication and make me very, very happy.

How good will Michigan be without Livers

Michigan senior wing Isaiah Livers sustained a stress-fracture of his right foot on March 13 and is out “indefinitely” the school announced.

The 6-foot-7 wing was a regular starter, averaging 13 points, six rebounds and two assists while shooting 43% from the arc and the key to the Wolverines’ inside-out game.

How big a deal has losing Livers been?

The Wolverines are 33-9 over the past two years with a healthy Livers and were 6-6 last year when he was out with injury. Livers went down in the quarterfinals, a game UM won, and then lost to Ohio State in the semifinals. Like FSU, Michigan has won two games in this year’s NCAA tournament.

Former Wake Forest transfer Chaundre Brown has replaced him. He is averaging 7.9 points and is shooting 39.7% from 3-point range.

Stick around: FSU’s bench production is stunning

It’s no secret Hamilton keeps his players’ legs fresh by playing more people than most any team in America is willing to put on the court when it counts. With Livers out, Michigan has four players who average 30 or more minutes per game. FSU does not have even one player who plays that many minutes. Without Livers, Michigan has two players who average 20-30 minutes, where FSU has four. No Michigan player averages as many as 10, where FSU plays five more who average 10-20 minutes.

What’s really interesting is the comparison in bench production. The Michigan bench has made only eight (8) three-point shots this year compared to FSU’s 88. Think about that.

The Seminoles’ bench dominates in every category. Here’s the FSU/UM bench comparison: scoring 604/268, rebounds 272/163, assists 80/25, steals 53/13 and blocks 36/16.

Like many teams, Michigan relies on its five starters and as many as two off the bench while the Seminoles spread their minutes much further, so don’t go to sleep on the ‘Noles in the later minutes of the game.

Pac-12 is only league with more than two remaining

Like you, I was disappointed in the ACC’s performance in the early rounds of the NCAA tournament as all but two (FSU and Syracuse) of its seven teams lost. But then, I took a look around at who was left in the Sweet 16.

The Big Ten, SEC, Big 12 and Big East fared no better. The Big Ten had nine bids but only Michigan remains. The Big 12 had seven bids with only Baylor remaining. The SEC had six bids with Alabama and Arkansas remaining. The Big East had four bids with Creighton and Villanova left. 

Shocker alert. The one exception is the Pac-12, where five teams made the NCAA tournament and four remain (USC, UCLA, Oregon and Oregon State). Add Gonzaga, which is located in Spokane, Wash., and is undefeated in 23 games, and the Sweet 16 leans heavily to the West Coast.