CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Surrounded by a small group of reporters somewhere in the depths of Charlotte’s Spectrum Center, Leonard Hamilton had barely started to discuss the game that just finished when he turned his focus to the game ahead.
Only moments earlier, the Seminoles were on the right side of a thrilling, come-from-behind, overtime victory over Virginia Tech, a game in which they made late shots in both regulation and overtime to earn a 65-63 win in an ACC tournament quarterfinal.
Their reward for such heroics is a date with the Virginia Cavaliers (7 p.m., ESPN), the tournament’s top seed and a virtual lock to earn a No. 1 seed when the NCAA tournament bracket is released on Sunday.
Hey, congrats, Coach.
“We’ve just got to enjoy this for a moment,” Hamilton said, “and go play the No. 1-ranked team in the country.”
Hamilton then laughed the way he often does when he knows his team is in for a challenge.
Technically, the Cavaliers are ranked No. 2 in both the Associated Press and Coaches polls, but they’ve spent time this season at No. 1 and arguably have a resume worthy of the top spot.
Virginia is loaded with high-end talent, boasts the second-best scoring margin in the country (plus-17.6) and, as always, has an absolute bear of a defense.
Employing a “pack-line” defensive style that coach Tony Bennett’s father perfected in the 1980s, the Cavaliers lead the country in scoring defense (54.6 PPG) and are a full four points per game better than anyone else in college basketball.
The Cavaliers protect the paint, make driving to the basket a chore and force teams to make outside shots.
Opponents that do that have a fighting chance against the Cavaliers. Those that don’t run the risk of being embarrassed.
“Virginia, they’re a great team,” FSU senior Phil Cofer said. “We’ve got to bring our hard hats.”
The Seminoles are well aware of that, having left Charlottesville, Va., with a painful lesson when they visited in January.
FSU back then was off to a 12-1 start, ranked No. 9 in the country and planned to kickstart their ACC campaign by toppling then-No. 4 Virginia on the road.
That plan, however, quickly fell by the wayside as the Cavaliers forced 15 turnovers and held the Seminoles to season lows in scoring (52) and shooting percentage (34.1).
That loss was the first of a 1-4 start in ACC play that had the Seminoles looking up from near the bottom of the league standings.
“Definitely looking forward to playing better than we did the first time we played them,” said senior Terance Mann, noting that the Seminoles were also dealing with some injuries at the time.
“We’re playing different basketball now, so we’re looking to come out strong and do what we do.”
Indeed, the Seminoles have more than recovered since their first meeting with the Cavaliers.
Since that 1-4 start, they’ve won 13 of their last 14, finished behind only UVA, North Carolina and Duke in the final ACC standings and on Thursday clinched their second ACC tournament semifinal in three years.
With one of the most successful regular seasons in recent program history in the books, and with their spot in the NCAA tournament already cemented, why not take another run at Virginia before the Big Dance begins next week?
Besides, it would seem the Seminoles can do little to hurt their cause. Most college basketball pundits have FSU pegged as a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament, and it’s unlikely the selection would penalize them much should they lose to UVA.
A win, however, might be enough to bump the Seminoles up one more seed line, which would increase their chances of beginning the tournament closer to home.
“We’re going to have to go out there and execute our game plan, be ready for whatever they throw at us,” FSU freshman Devin Vassell said. “It’s a great opportunity for us, for our team.”