March 11, 2008
TALLAHASSEE If hope were something tangible, coach Leonard Hamilton's Florida State basketball team would be clutching like a life preserver.
The Seminoles are fast approaching a 10th consecutive season without an NCAA Tournament berth, yet they entered the ACC Tournament as the No. 9 seed working on their best late-season run since 1993.
After closing the regular season with a 75-72 overtime victory at home against Miami, FSU had won four of its final five games, with a loss at No. 1 North Carolina its lone blemish. By completing a season sweep of the Hurricanes, the Seminoles denied coach Frank Haith's club the No. 4 seed and a first-round bye in the ACC Tournament.
"We wanted the game not to be more important to them than to us," Hamilton said. "This still gives us a mathematical chance. We have to go into the ACC Tournament thinking the tournament is up for grabs.
"It's a lot better going into the tournament 7-9. At least you're close enough and you give yourself a chance to make something positive happen for yourself in the tournament."
If only the Seminoles or Hamilton, for that matter were a little better at adding up conference tournament victories. At 18-13 overall and 7-9 in ACC play, FSU almost assuredly needs a deep tournament run to get into the NCAA field. History shows that neither the Seminoles nor Hamilton has had much success in that area.
In five previous ACC Tournament appearances under Hamilton, FSU has compiled a 2-5 mark. That includes last season's opening-round win over Clemson. Of course, the Seminoles aren't much better overall, managing just six first-round tournament wins in 16 seasons of ACC play, with just one (1992) semifinal appearance.
Hamilton's track record prior to his arrival in Tallahassee isn't much better in conference tournament action, either.
In nine seasons of taking Miami to the Big East Tournament, Hamilton's teams were 5-9, never winning more than one round. His Oklahoma State teams were 1-4 in Big Eight Tournament history.
That's a foreboding piece of history, one the Seminoles hope they can change beginning with a first-round matchup against Wake Forest.
Can it possibly be any different this time around for an FSU team that is painfully thin? The Seminoles would like to think so, based on the way the regular season ended.
"No matter what the circumstances or outcome, I still feel good about this season," senior guard Jason Rich said. "I still feel like we're a team that's very dangerous. We've been playing a lot better. We'll be a tough out for any team."
Rich may be right, as long as the Seminoles can continue to control the game's tempo. That means preferably holding opponents near or below 70 points, plus limiting turnovers and remaining competitive on the glass.
"Our players have bought into the way we have to play with our talent," Hamilton said. "This team has matured to say, This is the way we have to play.'"
What the Seminoles need most of all is double-digit production from Toney Douglas, Ralph Mims and Rich to extend their season. Against the Hurricanes, they got a bulk of that scoring from Mims, who came within a single point of his career high with 25. Douglas and Rich (who fouled out) added 16 apiece.
Regardless, the Seminoles weren't looking beyond an opening-round date with a Wake team that beat them twice in the regular season. As for the payoff should they beat the Demon Deacons, the Seminoles would earn a second-round date with top-seeded UNC.
"Although I know there are some new challenges right around the corner that I'm going to go through yet as a basketball player," Rich said, "I'm just trying to enjoy the journey, because I don't feel like it's over yet."
MIMS BECAME SUPER SENIOR
Mims long has been overshadowed by his scholarship senior classmates, Rich and Isaiah Swann. That doesn't make the former Maine Mr. Basketball any less significant to his team in the postseason.
In addition to scoring 25 points against Miami, Mims began the day by singing the national anthem for the second time this season.
"You can't say enough about Ralph on Senior Night," Hamilton said. "He was on point from the national anthem right to the end of the game."
Though just 7-of-19 from the floor, Mims knocked down 9 of 12 free throw attempts, handed out three assists and blocked two shots. He also limited star guard Jack McClinton (22 points) to one field goal over the final 14 minutes.
"I don't want to call it a shadow, but they had a different reputation than I had in high school," Mims said of his FSU classmates. "We've been here together for four years. We've grown up together. Like Coach Hamilton always told me since my first year, my time will come. I've lived up to that, and I'm displaying it my senior year."
Mims essentially promised his teammates that he would deliver during Friday night's team meeting.
"Ralph's comment was, I'll be there. You all can count on me,'" Hamilton said. "He was very emotional about it and made that commitment to his teammates, and I thought he did a great job and kept to his word."
It was Mims who got a piece of McClinton's desperation three-pointer at the end of overtime, preserving the victory.