FSU Heads to Sweet 16

Not long ago, Florida State was a forgotten basketball program. Consecutive losing seasons had dwindled a fan base, made recruiting a monumental challenge and caused speculation if the school would ever get relevant in basketball. The Seminoles (23-10) have changed perception.

Their NCAA Tournament upset of seventh-seeded Texas A&M was followed by a national stunner, a 71-57 dismantling of second-seeded Notre Dame close to the Irish's in Chicago. Thus Florida State is off to the Sweet 16 for the first time in 18 years, only the fourth time in school history.

But most important, the wins have validated coach Leonard Hamilton's defense-oriented style and his recruiting progress. The Seminoles now have far better players than they did a few years ago. And their skeptical supporters, many of whom are just casual basketball fans, have been won over. You cannot measure the impact this likely will have for the future of Florida State basketball, no matter what happens on Friday night in San Antonio when the Seminoles face another upstart, Virginia Commonwealth.

"It means that the progress that we have been making will obviously receive a certain level of recognition, and I also feel that our players will feel better about themselves and that their hard work is paying off," Hamilton said. "For me personally as a coach, I felt all along that we could get to this point, but I also feel that we can be a lot further along than we are.

"And our goals are to be a program of significance in the ACC and on a national basis. As much as we're enjoying where we are at this particular point, I'm still anxious to continue the climb."

The Sweet 16 matchup in San Antonio is one of those rare ones between low-seeded teams that have pulled off wins against quality teams in the NCAA Tournament. VCU was a team that ignited debate on whether it even belonged in the NCAA Tournament. No one is saying that anymore after the Rams won three NCAA games last week.

"They're playing with such passion and desire and unity," Hamilton said. "It's like they're representing a lot; their school, their conference.

But more than anything else, they seem to have bonded with such a strong determination that they just seem to be all in sync defensively and offensively. I've never seen a team play with that type of focus.

"I think they play with a little bit of a chip on their shoulder. I think people didn't particularly think that they should be in the tournament, and some of the guys made some comments that gave them what you call bulletin board material, and they responded like they have something they want to prove."

The Florida State-VCU winner likely will face top-seeded Kansas for a Final Four berth. The Seminoles have made only two Elite Eight trips, but one of those was in 1972, when the event was much smaller.

"I felt that through the ups and downs we've had this year, this team has grown and matured in a lot of different ways," Hamilton said.

For Florida State, getting respected in the ACC and among its own fans will probably have more residual effect than anything else that happens the rest of the way.

NOTES, QUOTES

--To get an idea of what a feat this is for Florida State to reach the Sweet 16, consider it's only happened three other times in school history. The first was 1972, when Hugh Durham coached the ultimate underdog Florida State into the national title game against UCLA during the John Wooden reign of titles. Back then, however, the NCAA Tournament competed with the NIT for prestige and national media coverage. The only other times it happened came in consecutive years (1992-93) under Pat Kennedy, who was never the same coach after leaving Florida State. Those two teams had three backcourt players, Charlie Ward, Bob Sura and Sam Cassell, who all had lengthy careers in the NBA.

--This marked the first time in the history of both schools that Florida and Florida State have made the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16 in the same year.

--Florida State has likely earned some respect within the ACC community and the league's fans. The league only had four teams make the NCAA Tournament, and this the first time since 2005 that the ACC has three teams in the Sweet 16.

--Five of the Seminoles' 10 losses this season are against teams that have advanced to the Sweet 16 -- North Carolina (twice) Butler, Florida and Ohio State.

--The Seminoles forced Texas A&M and Notre Dame to shoot under 32 percent, extending their edge as the national leader in field-goal percentage defense. The Seminoles, whose opponents are now shooting less than 35 percent, are looking to become the first team since Georgetown during the 1990 and 1991 seasons to lead the nation in back-to-back seasons in that category.

COACH: Leonard Hamilton, nine years at Florida State, seventh postseason appearance (third time in NCAA Tourney)

KEYS TO VICTORY: The Seminoles will have to slow the dribble drive of VCU's backcourt stars. Expect VCU to play a zone to see if Florida State's perimeter shooting against Notre Dame was a trend or an aberration. The Seminoles have to avoid lapsing into past habits where they go minutes without a basket and commit too many turnovers. The location of the game, San Antonio, will represent a true neutral court for the teams. QUOTE TO NOTE: "If we can stay consistent on the offensive end, I like our chances. I mean, we've just been so up and down and inconsistent on the offensive end, it allowed us to stumble a few times during the season and lose a few games. But if we could stay consistent and execute how we did today on the offensive end, I like our chances because we play so well on the defensive end." -- Florida State G Derwin Kitchen, following win over Notre Dame, when asked about Seminoles' chances to continue advancing in NCAA Tournament.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

GAME PREVIEW: vs. Virginia Commonwealth, March 25, NCAA Tournament Sweet 16

KEY MATCHUPS: The Seminoles will be facing a team that presents a perimeter and frontcourt challenge. But it starts with VCU guards Joey Rodriguez, who had 12 points and 11 assists against Purdue, and Bradford Burgess, who had 23 points and eight rebounds. The Rams continually burned Purdue with pick-and-roll plays. Like Florida State, VCU is peaking at the right time. The Seminoles will counter with their strong perimeter defense. Guard Luke Loucks isn't a great shooter, but he is a strong defender. If Chris Singleton heals enough to contribute, he's tough to get past on the perimeter. The key for the Seminoles remains whether they can continue to shoot the ball as they did against Notre Dame.

SCOUTING REPORT: In case anyone had not seen Florida State play this season, the nationally televised, prime-time game Sunday night against Notre Dame offered the right snapshot. The Seminoles are not only relentless on defense, they are very physical. They love to trade elbows and body blows. They love to send guys flying to the court. When someone gets in the scoring lane with the ball against them, the Seminoles swarm. They have long arms, quick hands and are committed to playing defense. It's a tough matchup for any team. But what changed in the wins against Texas A&M and Notre Dame was that the Seminoles started getting backcourt production. If Derwin Kitchen, Michael Snaer and Deividas Dulkys can hit 3-point shots, this team can get to the Final Four. The Seminoles have a tremendous frontcourt defense, and forward Bernard James and Okaro White and Terrance Shannon are great shot-blockers.

PLAYER NOTES

--Junior F Chris Singleton (right foot) played just 10 minutes against Notre Dame and did not score a point. But he did play. When he's out there, teams know it. He had a bigger contribution (five points) in the win against Texas A&M. He is not nearly at full strength, and conditioning is an issue. With another five days to recover, he could be a bigger factor against VCU.

--Junior F Bernard James had such a stomach virus prior to the Notre Dame game it was uncertain how much he could play. He admitted he felt like vomiting during the game. But his toughness, something instilled with Air Force duty overseas, enabled him to score 14 points and grab 10 rebounds and further enhance his profile nationally. He will be an bigger story this week, as more people have become aware of his background and the fact he spent five years away from the game while in the military.

--Freshman C Okaro White was 6-for-7 from the free-throw line, all in the second half, as he helped seal the victory against Notre Dame.


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