Big One in Tallahassee

North Carolina (22-6, 12-2 ACC), looking for its 19th win in its last 22 ball games, travels to North Florida Wednesday for a critical game at Florida State. Tipoff is scheduled for 7:00 pm on ESPN, to be immediately followed by Duke's 'Senior Night' game in Cameron Indoor Stadium against Clemson.
If UNC and Duke both win tonight, they will play in the Smith Center Saturday night for the outright ACC regular season championship and the top seed in next week's league tournament.
Of course Florida State also has a lot to play for, as the Seminoles (20-8, 10-4 ACC) could still finish in a second place tie with the Tar Heels if they beat UNC, and then UNC loses to Duke while the Seminoles finish off the regular season with a win at N.C. State Saturday evening.
"As we finish up the season we, as a team, understand each game takes on more importance," said Florida State head coach Leonard Hamilton in Monday's ACC teleconference.
"I just think this is the time of the year that everyone seems to be jockeying for position, and seizing the tournaments and things of that nature. Players seem to be really excited as we now move toward the end of the season."
"As I look at the games that are being played on TV, they're almost taking an NCAA Tournament or ACC Tournament-type atmosphere seeing the high level of intensity. Our players seem to be responding in that fashion and increasing their focus," Hamilton added.
The Seminole players have had to increase their focus in recent games with the departure of standout Chris Singleton, the team's leading scorer and rebounder, who was lost when he fractured his right foot against Virginia February 13.
"I don't think there is no doubt that we're still working on that (adjusting to playing without Singleton)," said Hamilton. "You don't replace a guy of his caliber this late in the season."
Without Singleton---the reigning ACC Defensive Player of the Year and a huge reason for FSU's NCAA-best field goal percentage defense---the Seminoles managed to beat Wake Forest and Miami, two of the schools near the bottom of the ACC standings, while getting humbled 78-62 at Maryland February 23.
While there's a chance that Singleton could possibly come back for the NCAA Tournament, its definite he won't be taking the court Wednesday night against UNC.
The Tar Heels, of course, are also going to be missing a capable perimeter scorer and defender, as it was announced Tuesday that freshman wing Reggie Bullock is out for the season with a knee injury.
Singleton's 13.8 points and 7.1 rebounds per game, along with his All-ACC caliber defense, is obviously sorely missed, but FSU has a balanced rotation of veterans, including 6-10 junior Bernard James (8.1 ppg, 5.6 rpg) and 6-4 guard Derwin Kitchen, whose 51 steals ranks third in the ACC behind only Singleton and Georgia Tech's Iman Shumpert.
In addition to his 1.8 steals per game, Kitchen is averaging 9.8 points and 3.7 steals per game.
FSU has versatility in its lineup with 6-5 starters Deividas Dulkys and Michael Snaer, who combined are averaging 16.6 points and 5.9 rebounds per outing, and 6-8 freshman Okaro White, who is progressing as the season moves along.
While Singleton and Kitchen have gotten most of the headlines, James, White, Dulkys and Snaer are all key components of FSU's stifling defense, which leads the nation allowing opponents to shoot just 36.1 percent against them while also leading the ACC in steals at an average of 8.8 per game.
In addition, FSU has gotten solid play off the bench from players like 6-11 junior Xavier Gibson, 6-8 sophomore Terrance Shannon, and 6-3 freshman Ian Miller.
"From our standpoint, we're still a team that's somewhat in transition with Xavier trying to get acclimated, and Terrance coming back from injury, and Ian's coming back from injury," said Coach Hamilton.
Wednesday night will be FSU's first test against a ranked opponent without Singleton, but they haven't lost a game in Tallahassee-Leon County Civic Center in ACC play all season---including a marquee win over Duke early on.
Florida State has never gone undefeated at home in ACC play going back to its introduction to the conference back in the 1991-1992 season, but they've got a chance to do so Wednesday night against a UNC team looking to finish a remarkable 6-2 away from Chapel Hill in league games this winter.
Certainly the FSU people know what they're getting into when they take the court against the Tar Heels.
They've had time to reflect on what happened in Chapel Hill back on February 6, when UNC dominated them to the tune of a 20-point win in the Dean Dome.
While his team is clearly getting better despite the devastating injury to Singleton, Coach Hamilton sees a UNC squad that's only getting better with time and experience as well.
"I just know as it relates to the University of North Carolina team, they're playing extremely well together. It seems as though every player is playing better than they were earlier in the year," he said.
"I think (Kendall) Marshall has done a tremendous job, but I think their whole entire team seems to be stepping up," Hamilton continued. "They were moving in that direction prior to Marshall moving into the (starting) lineup. It seems it's all kind of coming together."
"I think (John) Henson's playing extremely well. (Tyler) Zeller is playing very, very well. (Leslie) McDonald seems to be playing with a lot more confidence. Obviously Marshall is playing very well."
Given the way they play on their home floor, FSU is liable to make things much more difficult on Carolina than they did a few weeks back.
UNC must come into this game focused and determined not to allow itself to fall into an early hole as they did last Wednesday night in Raleigh, when they fell behind 19-9 in the first ten minutes against N.C. State.
Against such a solid defensive team as Florida State, UNC can't afford to come out flat and play from behind.
They need to seize the initiative, keep the crowd a non-factor, and keep the Seminoles off-balance with their own outstanding defense.
Frankly, the Tar Heels couldn't have asked for a whole lot more than this.
Two games---which happen to come against the other two schools in the top three in the standings---with the ACC regular season title on the line.
UNC is confident and peaking seemingly at just the right time, and in what will be its final 'true' road contest of the year, they've got a golden opportunity to make another national statement while setting up a huge clash with the Blue Devils on Saturday.
Game on.