NEW YORK – For the first time in five years, the Florida State men’s basketball team enters the Atlantic Coast Conference tournament with its postseason fate secure.
Regardless of what happens here in Brooklyn, the Seminoles will be playing in the NCAA tournament next week.
But as far as FSU coach Leonard Hamilton is concerned, the 16th-ranked Seminoles still have plenty to prove.
FSU, the tournament’s No. 2 seed, will play seventh-seeded Virginia Tech in a quarterfinal at the Barclays Center on Thursday at 7 p.m. The winner will face either Notre Dame or Virginia in a semifinal on Friday.
“For Florida State, it’s a matter of pride,” Hamilton said. “We’re in a basketball conference with the most elite of the elite. You have the most tradition-rich programs in the history of college basketball in the ACC, and we want to be a part of that.
“We’re trying to earn our stripes. What we’re trying to do is earn our rightful place in the basketball world.”
The Seminoles broke through that barrier in 2012, when they ran through Miami, Duke and North Carolina on the way to an ACC tournament title in Atlanta.
Since then, though the ACC tournament has been a mixed bag: FSU is 4-4 in its last eight ACC tournament games, a stretch that coincides with a four-year NCAA tournament drought.
But even with their place in the Big Dance already solidified, Hamilton said the Seminoles are happy to dust off their dancing shoes here in Brooklyn.
“(The tournament) is part of the legacy of the ACC,” he said. ‘It’s part of the culture. We love competing in it. We’ve played in the championship game twice, we’ve won it once. It would sure be nice to get back again.”
Florida State’s players, meanwhile, say they’re still motivated by a preseason slight from the league’s media way back in October.
It was then, at the ACC’s “Operation Basketball” media days that reporters picked the Seminoles to finish eighth in the 15-team league – behind the likes of North Carolina State, Syracuse and Notre Dame, among others.
“I knew we were better than that,” FSU guard Dwayne Bacon said.
Bacon was right.
The Seminoles went 12-6 in ACC play and finished in second place in what most analysts believe to be the best conference in the country.
FSU has already received a few rewards for its season: A No. 16 national ranking at the end of the regular season, a firm at-large bid to the NCAA tournament and a coveted double-bye at the ACC tournament.
But, upon arrival in Brooklyn, the Seminoles said they still weren’t satisfied.
“We just want to prove people wrong, people who didn’t think we would be a second seed,” sophomore forward Terance Mann said. “We Just want to finish strong and prove to people that we’re one of the top teams in the country.”
Freshman forward Jonathan Isaac took it a step further.
A former prep All-American and a potential lottery pick in the NBA draft, Isaac had his pick of any college basketball program in the country.
When he picked Florida State over, say, blue-bloods like North Carolina, Duke and Kentucky, it raised more than a few eyebrows.
“I, for one, had a lot of people talk to me about my decision to come to Florida State,” he said. “So just being able to have a great decision and prove a lot of people wrong is huge.”
There’s that “prove” word again.
Count Virginia Tech’s coach, Buzz Williams, among those who don’t need any more proof of the Seminoles’ mettle.
He and the Hokies got all they could handle when FSU beat them, 93-78, in Tallahassee on Jan. 7.
More than two months later, Williams knows exactly what he’s in for in Round 2.
“I think they have 12 high-major players on scholarship,” Williams said after the Hokies beat Wake Forest on Wednesday night. “And they’re going to play all 12.”
Indeed, FSU’s trademark depth might never have been more obvious than in its dismantling of the Hokies. Florida State played 13 players that night, with no one logging more minutes than Bacon’s 31.
Virginia Tech, meanwhile, went only eight deep thanks to injuries to guard Seth Allen and forward Khadim Sy.
As a result, FSU enjoyed a 35-6 advantage in points scored by its bench. The Seminoles’ depth could once again come into play – FSU hasn’t played since Saturday while Virginia Tech (22-9) will be on its second game in as many days.
The Hokies have won four of their last five games.
Williams hopes that having Allen and Sy healthy for Thursday’s game helps swing things in Tech’s favor, but the Hokies will also be without forward Chris Clarke, who was averaging 11.4 points per game when he tore his ACL last month.
“We tried some different things for the first time in Tallahassee,” Williams said. “I thought we played incredibly hard. Didn’t have enough ammo to beat them.
“Not saying we’ll have enough ammo to beat them (Thursday), but thankful that both Seth and (Sy) will both be healthy.”