No. 3 Virginia can’t afford to take struggling Florida State lightly

By Jerry Ratcliffe

Photo: UVA Athletics

Remember the gut punch Florida State delivered to an NCAA-hopeful Virginia late last February when Matthew Cleveland drilled a 3-pointer at the buzzer to beat the Cavaliers, 64-63?

UVA had some momentum going, having won five of six games, including knocking off Miami and Duke (at Cameron), just before a return match with the Blue Devils, followed by FSU in a short home stretch. The Cavaliers lost to Duke, 65-61, then came the Seminoles. Those back-to-back losses essentially killed Virginia’s NCAA hopes, especially Cleveland’s buzzer-beater.

Well, Cleveland and his Seminoles make a return visit to a sold-out John Paul Jones Arena on Saturday for a 2-p.m. ACC opener for both teams (ESPN2). While FSU has won four of its last five meetings against Virginia, the Seminoles will stagger into Charlottesville with a disappointing 1-8 record.

Leonard Hamilton’s team has struggled mightily this early season, with double-digit losses to Siena, Stanford and Nebraska before dropping its ACC-Big 10 Challenge game to No. 5 Purdue, 79-69, earlier this week.

Don’t be fooled by that outcome though. FSU only trailed the Boilermakers 47-46 with just under 15 minutes to play, and despite a 9-0 Purdue run, the Seminoles still were in a one-possession game with less than five minutes.

Cleveland, who has the green light from Hamilton to shoot the open 3’s, played well against Purdue, as did Darin Green Jr., a transfer from UCF, who scored 23 points (7 for 12 field goals, 4 for 7 from beyond the arc).

Virginia is ranked No. 3 in the nation after storming back from an 11-point halftime deficit at Michigan on Tuesday night, defeating the Wolverines, 70-68.

The Cavaliers enter Saturday’s game undefeated (see Wahoo Preview for a complete breakdown of the UVA-FSU matchup) and averaging 76.7 points per game, the most of any team in the Tony Bennett era. Virginia boasts four players averaging double figures, in addition to Kihei Clark at 9.5 points per game and Ben Vander Plas at 8.5.

Still, FSU won’t be a pushover.

“You will see us get better and better as we move through the remainder of the year,” Hamilton said after the Purdue loss. “As our guys get more and more experience, and understand how to play to each other, with each other and for each other.

“This team has had a hard time adjusting, but I think tonight, they took a step in the right direction.”

UVA is No. 3 in the nation in 3-point field-goal percentage at 45.2 and has capable shooters all over the floor. The Wahoos are also No. 7 nationally in free throws made per game (19.2) and free throws attempted per game (26.5). UVA is ninth in the country in fewest turnovers per game (9.5).