What to watch: Turnovers. Specifically, how many do the Seminoles commit and/or the Rams force? VCU is at its best when pressuring opponents and taking away the ball. The Rams are plus-129 in turnover margin in 26 victories, and plus-four in 11 defeats. If they’re not creating havoc, they’re in trouble. Florida State just happens to be susceptible to being sloppy with the ball -- the Seminoles are a minus-25 turnover margin on the season and have 109 more turnovers than assists. FSU coach Leonard Hamilton said Thursday his team has been better with the ball lately, but the Rams figure to be a more in-your-face defensive matchup than Notre Dame or Texas A&M.
Who to watch:Jamie Skeen is VCU’s leading scorer and rebounder, but he’s gotten ample help from Bradford Burgess and Joey Rodriguez in this NCAA run. Burgess has averaged team highs of 14.7 points and 8.7 rebounds, while Rodriguez has had a ridiculous 23 assists and three turnovers while averaging 12.3 points. The Rams are too diverse to single out Skeen on the scouting report.
For Florida State, guard Derwin Kitchen has been its leading scorer and best player in the NCAAs. But the X-factor is Chris Singleton -- the injured star player who returned to the court in Chicago after missing eight games with a broken foot. Singleton didn’t do a lot in two games, producing five points and four rebounds in 26 minutes of play, but Hamilton said he had two great practices this week. If arguably the nation’s best defender is able to give the Noles more here, he could be the difference between losing and going on to Houston.
Florida State wins if: The Seminoles execute offensively the way they did in Chicago. This is a defense-first program that has started to find its groove on the other end of the court. In victories over Texas A&M and Notre Dame, Florida State improved its season field-goal percentage two points, it’s 3-point percentage five points and its free-throw percentage two points. Perhaps most importantly, the Seminoles had more assists (29) than turnovers (25). Everyone knows the Noles will guard until the last dog dies -- but if they shoot a decent percentage, take care of the ball and get to 70 points, they’ll be tough to beat.
VCU wins if: The Rams hold their own on the glass, hit some perimeter shots and keep FSU unsettled with their pressure defense. In its losses, VCU has been outrebounded by more than eight per game and shot just 31 percent from 3-point range. In its wins, VCU is only a minus-1.2 on the glass and shot 38 percent from 3.
What they’re saying: VCU coach Shaka Smart, on playing the underdog card with his team: “It’s something that we still do. It’s still a factor. I saw somebody had us rated 16th out of the 16 teams still left in the Big Dance, although I think some of my friends in the media are starting to do it on purpose, just to give us something to use. Thank you for those of you who are, because we do use it.”
Florida State’s Bernard James, on no-nonsense coach Hamilton: “He tells you how he wants it, and basically that’s how it’s going to be. I think any good coach needs to be like that. The coaches, they’re there to manage the program, to manage the players. They can’t take their cues from the player. You can’t let a player take over the team or there’s just going to be chaos.”
Noteworthy: Smart got TV analyst and legendary shooter Steve Kerr to take on Rodriguez in a 3-point shooting competition at the end of VCU’s open practice Thursday. Rodriguez won, which surprised his coach. “I thought Steve would win because he’s the best shooter I’ve ever seen,” Smart said. “But Joey stepped in there and knocked them in.” … Florida State is trying to make its third Elite Eight in program history, and first since 1993. It has been to one Final Four (1972). VCU has never been this far before.