WASHINGTON – The red eyes in the Florida State locker room told the story.
The Seminoles arrived here in Washington on Monday, believing they’d stay all week, win five games en route to the ACC tournament championship and claim the league’s automatic bid to the NCAA tournament.
But the hill was too steep. After an easy win over Boston College on Tuesday, FSU flamed out on Wednesday against one of the hottest teams in the country – the Virginia Tech Hokies, who ran their winning streak to six games with a 96-85 victory. After the game, as the clock pushed into early Thursday morning, reality set in for FSU.
The NCAA tournament selection show isn’t until Sunday, but the Seminoles know enough to know they’ll miss out on the Big Dance for the fourth straight season.
“It was very frustrating,” freshman guard Dwayne Bacon said.
“They came out and wanted it more than us,” fellow freshman Malik Beasley. “We’ve just got to make sure we keep our heads up and, whatever tournament we play in next, we’ve got to play hard.”
So FSU won’t get its storybook ending, but that doesn’t mean its story is over.
With a 19-13 record and a few high-profile victories, the Seminoles should merit strong consideration for the National Invitation Tournament, which begins next Tuesday.
The NIT enjoyed a good reputation for much of the 1950s and 60s, with several teams opting for it instead of a berth in the NCAA tournament.
But as the NCAA tournament expanded its field and the phenomenon of March Madness grew, the NIT turned into something of a consolation prize for teams not playing on the biggest stage.
Consolation or not, the Seminoles say they’d welcome the opportunity to compete again this season. Both to gain some positive energy toward next year and also give seniors Devon Bookert, Montay Brandon and Boris Bojanovsky a chance to end their careers on a high note.
FSU advanced to the NIT semifinals in 2014.
“I’m just a freshman and I want to win a tournament,” Beasley said. “Whatever I’ve got to do to help the team out and win a tournament, that’s what I want to do.”
Tightening up the defense would be a good place to start, and not just for Beasley.
The Seminoles could only shake their heads Thursday morning as they recalled the way the Hokies attacked the basket at will.
Virginia Tech shot nearly 54 percent against FSU, and the Hokies were hardly the first to take advantage of the Seminoles’ defensive lapses.
FSU is allowing opponents to shoot an average of 44.2 percent from the field this season, good for 214th in the country and a far cry from the days when the Seminoles used to lead the nation in field-goal percentage defense.
Florida State might not be able to plug all of its defensive holes in the next few weeks, but coach Leonard Hamilton welcomes the chance to give it a try.
If it leads to a few more wins this season, great. If it leads to sustained improvement for next season, even better.
“The more we can practice, the more teams we can play, they better we’re going to be in the future,” he said.
As of Friday morning, FSU is a fixture in all NIT projections.
The NIT Bracket Project (bracketmatrix.com) has the Seminoles as a No. 1-seed, which would give them three home games before the semifinals in New York.
Other projections have the Seminoles making the field as a No. 3 or 4 seed.
NIT bracketology, however, is not nearly as refined as its NCAA counterpart, which makes FSU’s exact fate difficult to predict. The 32-team field will be announced Sunday at 8:30 p.m., in a selection show on ESPNU.
Regardless of where they land, the Seminoles insist that they’ll take full advantage of whatever opportunities come their way.
“Whatever we’re in,” Bacon said, “I just want to win it.”