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FSU in the zone – for better or worse – for Round 2 vs. Syracuse

There’s no secret to beating Syracuse’s 2-3 zone defense: Make 3-pointers. The problem: That’s not a consistent strength for Florida State this season.

FSU made just 4 of 30 (13.3 percent) of its 3-point attempts in a 63-60 loss at home to Syracuse in December. A few things are obvious as just one more made 3-pointer means a big difference in potentially sending a game to overtime, while a second one would be enough to win the game outright and extend the Seminoles’ home ACC win streak.

Instead, a group of FSU newcomers that had little experience vs. the zone defense was left frustrated.

“We didn’t execute very well at all against their zone,” FSU coach Leonard Hamilton said. “Our cuts were slow. We didn’t attack the gaps. What we had as a game plan I’m not real sure our guys executed very well or they understood what we needed to do at that particular point. That was the first time we had played against a zone defense. We played like we had not had any experience playing against a zone defense. We weren’t as crisp.”

FSU is 4-5 against the Orange since they joined the ACC, and the box scores show a direct correlation: If you have success making 3-pointers, you can beat Syracuse whether the game is home or away. Consider these numbers:

FSU’s 3-point shooting at Syracuse

March. 2014, a 74-58 loss in Tallahassee — FSU shot 4 of 14 (28.6 percent)

Jan. 2015, a 70-57 loss at Syracuse — FSU shot 2 of 16 (12.5 percent)

Feb. 2016, a 85-72 loss at Syracuse — FSU shot 8 of 26 (30.7 percent)

March 2016, a 78-73 win in Tallahassee — FSU shot 7 of 24 (29.2 percent)

Jan. 2017, an 82-72 loss at Syracuse — FSU shot 9 of 25 (36 percent)

Jan. 2018, a 101-90 2OT win at Tallahassee — FSU shot 11 of 32 (34.4 percent)

Feb. 2019, an 80-62 win at Syracuse — FSU shot 11 of 22 (50 percent)

Feb. 2020, an 80-77 win at Tallahassee — FSU shot 11 of 25 (44 percent)

Dec. 2021, a 63-60 loss at Tallahassee — FSU shot 4 of 30 (13.3 percent)

FSU (9-5, 3-2) is averaging 33.2 percent from beyond the arc in 2021-22 and likely needs to shoot close to 40 percent from 3-point range to defeat Syracuse, with Round 2 coming up on Saturday at 3 p.m. (ESPN2). Among FSU’s rotation players, John Butler (43.8 percent) and Malik Osborne (41.3 percent) have been the most successful but Anthony Polite (26.5), RayQuan Evans (27.3) and Wyatt Wilkes (28.9) have struggled as they have moved up the scouting report in priority for opposing defenses.

The Seminoles have gained some confidence with back-to-back home wins over Louisville and Miami.

Syracuse (8-8, 2-3) isn’t exactly lighting it up. The Orange are facing their own struggles and will have to fight back in the second half of the season to make the NCAA Tournament. But this is mid-January, and both teams are in a position to improve their prospects with roughly half of the season (16 regular-season games) to go.

Hamilton has often mentioned that he will look out on the floor and see three or four newcomers (freshmen or transfers) on the floor at the same time while opponents have veterans on the court. He has had to gauge how much to push and how to be patient over the course of the season, but the Seminoles have gained some continuity by being on the court with consistency over the last two-plus weeks.

“It’s obvious our guys are operating a little more instinctively than they have been,” Hamilton said. “They’re not thinking as much. They’re just responding. They’re growing and improving in so many areas. I see the light coming on a little more with our guys. They don’t look as stressed as they have been.”

Hamilton was later asked in the interview about his level of comfort, and the longtime FSU coach laughed.

“I’m pleased that we’re making progress,” Hamilton said. “I’m a long way from being comfortable.”

Quick hitters

As a reminder, FSU has rescheduled two games. The Seminoles will play host to North Florida on Thursday at noon (live stream on ACC Network Extra) in the makeup of that December game. The Ospreys are 4-12 going into Saturday’s game against Jacksonville. And FSU will play at Boston College on Feb. 21 as part of another rescheduled game.

FSU is 43-15 in the ACC regular season play (74.1 win percentage) since the start of the 2018- 19 league season. The Seminoles have averaged 13.3 ACC wins per season and are 16-13 in ACC road games during the last three seasons. 

And FSU leads the league in steals, earning earned eight or more steals in 12 of its 14 games.