Florida State beat Gonzaga in last season’s Sweet 16, and folks on the Bulldogs’ side will be quick to point out that they didn’t have starting big man Killian Tillie.
Gonzaga expects to have a healthy Tillie for this season’s Sweet 16 rematch Thursday in the West Region in Anaheim, Calif.
But he won’t be the biggest difference when the top-seeded Bulldogs (32-3) take on the fourth-seeded Seminoles (29-7) in a battle of deep, experienced teams with length and athleticism.
The difference-maker in 2019 could very well be Brandon Clarke.
The 6-foot-8 junior transfer from San Jose State leads the nation in field-goal percentage (69.9) and is tied for third in blocks per game (3.1). He dominated with 36 points, eight rebounds and five blocks, while shooting 15 of 18 from the field, as the Bulldogs turned away Baylor 83-71 in a second-round game on Saturday.
Last season, Clarke watched Gonzaga-FSU on TV.
“It’s been something that’s been really fun for me,” he said of his first season of eligibility at Gonzaga. “This is easily the most fun I’ve had playing ball ever. So, I’m really blessed to have the chance to come here and to play for the Zags. Obviously, it was tough last year not playing.”
Doing what he did against undersized Baylor is one thing; doing it against Florida State’s powerful, tall trees such as 6-foot-10 forward Mfiondu Kabengele (team-high 13.4 points per game) and 7-4 Christ Koumadje will be something else entirely. FSU’s usual rotation includes three others who are at least 6-7, including Phil Cofer.
Playing for Cofer
All kinds of emotions are wrapped up in Cofer, who missed the first two games of the NCAA Tournament because of a foot injury and learned after Thursday’s first-round win over Vermont that his father, former NFL linebacker Michael Cofer, had died after a long illness.
Florida State players honored their teammate’s father with badges or messages on their warmup shirts, jerseys and shoes.
Coach Leonard Hamilton told 97.9 ESPN Radio in Tallahassee, Fla., on Monday that Cofer would not be available Thursday, and would not likely be with the team if it advanced to play in the West Region final.
“We’re going to respect Phil during this tragedy and the passing of his father,” Hamilton told Jon Rothstein of CBS Sports. “He knows where we are, and we know where he is. We’re here for him.”
Cofer is averaging 7.4 points, 3.5 rebounds and 26.2 minutes per game, starting 19 of his 22 games. He had seven points when Florida State defeated the Bulldogs 75-60 in Los Angeles in last season’s Sweet 16.
Zags’ deep frontcourt
Tillie, a starter last season, is now coming off bench behind Clarke and All-American Rui Hachimura (team-high 19.7 points per game) in a terrific frontcourt rotation. Tillie has been slowed by two foot injuries this season but returned four games ago.
Gonzaga coach Mark Few said it was “a crushing blow to us, emotionally” when the team found out in warmups that Tillie couldn’t go in last season’s Sweet 16 due to a hip injury.
“Florida State was really good that night,” Few said. “I don’t know if we could have beaten them with Killian, but I know he would have really, really helped.”
Gonzaga is making its fifth consecutive Sweet 16 appearance, the longest streak in the nation, which includes a run to the 2017 national title game. Few has said this is his best team in transition; the Bulldogs have the nation’s most efficient offense, according to KenPom.com
Florida State has the size and depth to match up and is battle-tested through its ACC slate, as well as with nonconference victories over LSU and Purdue.
“I thought they were really, really under-seeded,” Few said. “I have watched them a bunch this year, and they’ve had a great year. I thought they’d end up on the 2 line, and to see them at 4, that’s kind of tough.”
–Field Level Media (@FieldLevelMedia)