PITTSBURGH – A week removed from its most recent game, the Florida State men’s basketball team is set to embark on a home stretch that could determine whether an already special season turns into an historic one.
With five games left in the regular season, the 17th-ranked Seminoles (21-5, 9-4 in Atlantic Coast Conference play) sit just one game behind North Carolina (21-5, 10-3) for first place in the ACC standings.
However, so too do Duke and Louisville, both of which have records identical to FSU’s. And beyond the Blue Devils and Cavaliers, Notre Dame (20-7, 9-5), Virginia (18-7, 8-5) and Syracuse (16-11, 8-6) are all within striking distance of the league’s upper tier as well.
All told, only three games separate the ACC’s first-place team (UNC) from its eighth (Virginia Tech).
How the season’s final two weeks play out will of course decide the league’s regular-season champion, but it will help also shape seeding for the NCAA tournament and determine who earns the coveted top four slots in next month’s ACC tournament.
Florida State won the ACC tournament in 2012, but has yet to win the league’s regular-season crown.
“We are moving with the idea that this is a very, very important time for us,” FSU coach Leonard Hamilton said. “Somebody is going to come out of this bunch, and we want that team to be us.”
The Seminoles will look to keep pace when they visit Pittsburgh (14-12, 3-10) on Saturday (4 p.m., ESPN2) at the Petersen Events Center.
In their first season under coach Kevin Stallings, Pitt was mired in an eight-game losing streak in January and February but have recently shown signs of life.
The Panthers have won two of their last three games, and they would have made it three for three had they held on against Virginia Tech on Wednesday. Pitt led the Hokies for more than 34 minutes before falling, 66-63, in the game’s waning moments.
“We know they’re hungry,” Hamilton said.
Then again, so are the Seminoles after a frustrating evening in South Bend, Ind., last week.
Facing a Notre Dame team that they had beaten previously this season, the Seminoles undermined their cause by shooting just 31.8 percent from the free-throw line in an 84-72 defeat.
The Fighting Irish also held healthy advantages in 3-points shooting and rebounding.
When they got home, the Seminoles were ready to get right back on the court and scrub the bad taste from their mouths. Instead, they had a week until their next game.
“After you lose you want to play right away,” sophomore Terance Mann said. “But then again, it’s also good. We got a chance to rest and we got a chance to go up and down.”
After giving his team a few days off, Hamilton said he noticed a renewed intensity when the Seminoles resumed their practice schedule.
They began the week by focusing on their own skills and techniques, then switched their attention to Pittsburgh a few days later.
That schedule is a far cry from earlier this season, when the Seminoles endured multiple stretches of three games in a single week.
“We’re just trying to refresh their minds and not tax their bodies,” Hamilton said. “Our practices are a little shorter now, but they’re more pointed toward the specific things we need to do to be successful.”
Against Pittsburgh, being successful means slowing down the Panthers’ star senior tandem of Michael Young and Jamel Artis.
Young (20.6 points per game) and Artis (19.7) have spent much of the season ranked as the league’s top two scorers, although Artis recently slipped to third. The pair form the third-leading scoring duo in the country.
“They’re grown men,” Mann said. “They’re older. They both can score any type of style.”
Hamilton noted that having two seniors of Young’s and Artis’ ability is something of a rarity in modern college basketball, where talented players often pursue professional careers after a year or two in college.
Having so much talent – and experience to match – makes the Panthers a unique challenge.
“They’re experienced, they’re mature and they’re fighters,” Hamilton said. “They’ve been well coached before (Stallings) got there. And they’re obviously displaying they abilities they have.”