Preview & Prediction: By Evan Dorey
-- Two teams battling to stay in the upper echelon of the ACC meet when #30 Florida St. (19-5, 6-3) faces #25 Wake Forest (18-4, 5-4) with the winner improving its chances of a first round bye in the conference tournament. Also, it’s Valentine’s Day, so I think I’m morally obligated to say there’s ‘no love lost’ between the teams. Or something like that.
Wake Forest had a spectacular start to the season, opening with a 17-0 record, and recording wins over each of the top three ACC teams. Things have gone downhill over the last two weeks, however, starting with a tough loss at cellar-dwelling Georgia Tech. Since then, Wake has lost at Miami and at NC St., dealing a likely fatal blow to its hopes of a #1 seed and a finish atop the ACC. Florida St. has quietly made its way to a very nice record, and seems well poised for its first tournament bid in more than a decade. The Seminoles’ five losses are all decent, with the worst being at Northwestern, and while they don’t have a marquee win, they have recorded good wins over Cal, Florida, Clemson and Cincinnati. Florida St. sits tied for third in the conference, and with a win, would move up to tie Duke for second place.
I’ve done a couple of previews lately featuring teams that have top-tier defenses, but struggle to score, and Florida St. is another perfect example. The Seminoles’ offense simply wastes too many possessions, making a below-average percentage of shots, and really struggling to hold on to the ball, sporting the worst turnover rate in the ACC. They do get back a good percentage of their own misses, and get to the free throw line often, but its just not enough to make up for their failings. A couple of weeks ago, Florida St.’s offense would have faced one of the nation’s best defenses in Wake Forest, but recent ACC results have tarnished the Deacons’ defensive image. The problem for Wake Forest is that their defense is dependent on holding opponents to a low percentage of shots, and when they can’t do this, they are only average. When the defense is working, Wake Forest can lock down an opponent inside and outside, but of late, they haven’t been successful at it.
Wake Forest sit second in the ACC in points-per-game, but when you consider the points-per-possession rankings, the Deacons are a middle-of-road offensive team. Wake play at a very high pace, and generate most of their points from inside the arc, both in transition and from getting the ball inside in the halfcourt offense. The Deacons make 53% of two-point attempts, and also draw a lot of fouls, but despite this interior presence, they don’t get a lot of offensive rebounds. They may be able to grab their own misses against Florida St., though, as the Seminoles have one of the ACC’s worst rebounding defenses. Besides rebounding, Florida St. matches up well with Wake, as the Seminoles are ferocious interior defenders, and force a lot of turnovers.
Jeff Teague has been one of the season’s biggest surprises, having taken a big step up in his sophomore season, and leading Wake in scoring, assists and steals. Teague’s one of the ACC’s best shooters, over 50% from behind the arc, and also gets a lot of points at the free throw line. His only weakness is an occasional propensity for turnovers, but overall he’s a very efficient offensive player. After Teague, three talented big men highlight Wake’s roster. Highly touted freshman Al-Farouq Aminu has been an effective scorer, and leads the team in rebounding. James Johnson is a force on both ends, second on the team in scoring, and posting nice steal and block rates as well, while 7-footer Chas McFarland plays only 20 minutes a game, but is an effective shot-blocker and rebounder when in. Guard L.D. Williams is the fifth starter, he doesn’t do much offensively, but can chip in on occasion, though he needs to shy away from the three-point shot. Off the bench, guard Harvey Hale had been an adequate depth player, while Ishmael Smith looks like a pure point guard, putting up good assist numbers, but really struggling with his shot. Tony Woods and David Weaver can provide some depth minutes inside, but are complimentary players at best.
To say that Toney Douglas is the Seminoles’ most important player might be somewhat understating his role, his statistical domination over the rest of the roster is quite impressive. Douglas is the only player who plays more than 30 minutes a game, averages more than double the points of the team’s second-highest scorer, and has taken more than a quarter of the team’s field goal attempts on the season. He’s managed to be effective in this large role, a good percentage shooter who picks up a lot of steals, and gets to the free throw line quite a bit. The four other starters all average between 7 and 8 points per game, with the most effective a pair of Nigerian big men, Uche Echefu and Solomon Alabi. The 7-1 freshman Alabi has shot over 55% from the field, and leads the team in both rebounds and shot-blocks; Echefu is also a strong rebounder, but his shooting percentages aren’t as good. Junior-college All-American Derwin Kitchen has worked his way into the starting line-up in recent weeks, but his good play has been sporadic at best. 6-9 freshman Chris Singleton has played well defensively, but has seen his offensive game regress somewhat over the season. Jordan Demercy is another young player who has seen his minutes diminish of late, while junior forward Ryan Reid takes a lot of shots, but being under 43% from two-point range makes him the team’s least efficient player. Freshman Luke Loucks is the team’s best three-point shooter, but doesn’t take many attempts.
Wake has been in a slump in recent days, but they still have the balance and talent to outmatch Florida St. on paper. Given the game is in Winston Salem, I’d expect a Wake win, but they’ll need to improve on their recent defensive form to avoid another defeat.
Winner: Wake Forest Margin: 5-9
-- Evan Dorey's game previews & rankings are based on Elo Ratings. Elo Ratings are fairly simple, all teams are assigned an initial number of points, which is the same for all teams, eliminating preseason bias. Then, as the season progresses, when a team wins it gains points, and when it loses it drops points. The amount of points that are gained or lost depend on the level of the opponent (beating a cupcake gets you little, beating #1 will be a big increase), the scoring margin of the game (which is capped), and the game’s location. To take a look at Evan's College Basketball Elo Ratings, visit his website or blog where he discusses the rankings along with other statistical observations about big games and interesting teams.