TALLAHASSEE, Fla A year ago, Florida State was the darling of the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament -- the team that broke the Duke-North Carolina stranglehold and brought home Florida States first ACC basketball title.
As the ACC tourney starts Tuesday, the Seminoles are clearly the longshot. FSU has few veterans, with just one scholarship senior in Michael Snaer. One junior, guard Ian Miller, is playing through a severe foot injury. Another junior, forward Terrance Shannon, suffered a neck injury and coach Leonard Hamilton has held him out of the past two games for precautionary reasons.
This is far from the senior-filled roster of 2011-12. The Seminoles (17-14, 9-9 ACC) will go as far as their freshmen will take them this time when they open ACC tournament play on at 9 p.m. against Clemson (13-17, 5-13), which has lost nine of its last 10 games.
The more games we play the better its going to be for our team, Hamilton said. We just dont want to give up on the idea that we can be one of those stories. We could be one of those teams.
FSU could be one of those teams, but it will surely be an uphill battle. The Seminoles are coming off two consecutive wins but its been a struggle for the young team to piece together wins this season. Florida State would have to win on consecutive days if the Seminoles get past Clemson on Thursday, North Carolina awaits less than 24 hours later. Potential weekend matchups against Miami andor Duke could await them.
And the Seminoles would have to do this with a roster that includes six freshmen that have never played in an ACC tournament game.
Perspective is a funny thing, though, and Hamilton was quick to take note of it before the team left for the tournament in Greensboro, N.C.
Many fans think of Florida States 9-9 ACC mark as a disappointment, even with all of the newcomers. But the Seminoles suffered through 12 seasons where they won just four, five or six ACC games until Hamilton guided the team to a 9-7 mark in 2005-06.
Fans got used to the success under Hamilton, who was hired to coach at Florida State in 2002. In the 2008-12 ACC seasons, the Seminoles had double-digit conference wins.
There are enough examples of teams that have had average seasons, and I feel good that we can say 9-9 is an average season, Hamilton said. That is a compliment in itself that we can say that only a few years ago we were trying to get the program to .500 in the league.
Now .500 in the league is below our standards, that means that we are making a little bit of progress.
Florida States freshmen have shown that progress by closing out the regular season at home with wins over Virginia Tech and N.C. State. The Seminoles had been through a roller-coaster ACC season that included blowout losses and buzzer-beating game-savers by Michael Snaer.
To finish on a positive note helped Florida State feel confident going into the postseason.
Getting that win (over N.C. State) takes us in with a lot of momentum, Snaer said. Thats momentum that we need. For them to see that their effort transfers into a win, thats big.
Next up is a Clemson team that the Seminoles defeated on the road 71-66 on Jan. 5 and then needed a buzzer-beating 25-footer from Michael Snaer to sneak out a 60-57 win on Jan. 24.
While Clemson has struggled the past 10 games, just three of those nine losses in that span were by double figures.
A lot of their games are in doubt with five or six minutes to go, Hamilton said. The games could have gone either way. They have some youngsters that have really improved.
No matter how the Seminoles perform on Thursday, theres little doubt that Florida State will play in the postseason for an eighth straight season. After earning a spot in the NCAA tournament the last four seasons, Florida State is likely headed for the NIT.
Coaches and players wont admit it, but this much is for certain: despite all of the pieces that Florida State was replacing, this is a season that could have seen the Seminoles hit 20 wins in the regular season. FSU won 17 games, but lost head-scratching home games to South Alabama and Mercer and also fell on the road to Auburn.
Give Florida State 20 wins going into the ACC tournament, and the Seminoles are clearly a bubble team that is fighting to improve its resume in Greensboro. Now they are in a situation where they have to win the ACC tournament or settle for the NIT.