ANDERSON, S.C. – On Feb. 5, not even one month ago, the Florida State men’s basketball team turned in one of its most impressive outings of the season in a 109-61 demolition of the Clemson Tigers in Tallahassee.
FSU coach Leonard Hamilton does not expect a similar final score when the 19th-ranked Seminoles (22-6, 10-5 ACC) make their visit to Clemson (14-13, 4-11) on Saturday (noon, ACC Network).
Although they have lost five of their last six games, the Tigers have played better than their record suggests over the course of the season. Of Clemson’s 11 ACC losses, eight have come by six or fewer points. Had a few of those games gone the other way, the Tigers might be comfortably positioned in the NCAA tournament.
As it stands, some analysts believe the Tigers to still be on the bubble. ESPN’s Joe Lunardi has even included Clemson in the “first four out” of his latest NCAA tournament projections.
The Tigers would of course welcome a win over a ranked FSU team on their resume.
“There’s no doubt in mind that we’re going to have a mad Tiger, a motivated Tiger that’s out to do a lot of damage,” Hamilton said. “And we’ve got to match it with us being a motivated Seminole.”
That shouldn’t be an issue for Florida State, which, despite piling up victories against some of the top teams in the nation, has yet to prove it can consistently succeed away from home.
FSU has six wins against the AP Top 25, which is tied for the most of anyone in the country. But the Seminoles are also just 2-5 on the road in conference play.
Proving to themselves that they can win in a hostile environment, against a team they routed just a few weeks ago, no less, is a top priority for the Seminoles.
FSU is 11-19 all-time in Clemson’s Littlejohn Coliseum, but has won in three of its last four visits.
“We’ve kind of let ourselves down on the road, but we still have faith we can go on these road trips and win,” FSU senior Jarquez Smith said. “It’s just another opportunity to show everybody, prove to them and ourselves, that we can win on the road.”
Added sophomore Terance Mann: “I’m kind of happy that this next one is a road game. … They’re obviously going to come out with fire, especially with what happened the last game when we played them.”
Florida State’s motivation, however, extends far beyond the team’s collective psyche.
With three games to play, the Seminoles are in a four-way tie with Louisville, Duke and Notre Dame for second place in the ACC standings.
While FSU is in good shape with tiebreakers (it has head-to-head victories against Duke and Louisville, and is 1-1 against Notre Dame), the Seminoles still need to keep winning to ensure a top-four seed and a coveted double-bye for next month’s ACC tournament.
How important is finishing in the top four? No team seeded lower than fourth has won the tournament since sixth-seeded Maryland in 2004.
“There’s no question that we want the double-bye,” Hamilton said. “The only way you get it is not wish for it. Go take it. And you take it by us being prepared on Saturday.”
Then again, Clemson is motivated by desperation. Beginning Saturday, the Tigers have three straight home games to close the season. Wins in those games, coupled with a run in the ACC tournament, could be enough to put the Tigers on the right side of the bubble come Selection Sunday.
“If youre them, you’re saying, ‘If we get these three home games against this competition, we might have a chance to finish the season on a positive note,’” Hamilton said.
“And we’re next up.”
Clemson runs through senior forward Jaron Blossomgame, whose 17.1 points per game are six more than his closest teammate. The 6-7, 220-pounder also shoots better than 49 percent from the field.
Florida State, meanwhile, has enjoyed an outstanding recent stretch from guard Xavier Rathan-Mayes, who has asserted himself as a force on both ends of the floor.
In FSU’s win over Boston College on Monday, Rathan-Mayes became just the fourth player in school history to dish 10 assists and not have a single turnover.
Rathan-Mayes is also the catalyst for an FSU defense that ranks fourth in the ACC in field goal-percentage defense.
“That dude is great, man,” Mann said. “He does it on both ends now. He’s a great leader.”