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March 12, 2012

Column: FSU a program that has found its way

ATLANTA - This was no fluke. Cinderella didn't make an appearance, lucky bounces didn't change the outcome this weekend.

This weekend was about a program that has found its way.

Make no mistake, Leonard Hamilton, the man with the net around his neck brought the best team to the ACC Tournament this week. In this league, with a program that's a Tobacco Road outcast, that's saying something.

Florida State took a punch from Duke and won. It withstood North Carolina's best shot and survived. The ACC's bellcows with all the tradition and the experience, the money and the fanbase couldn't overcome the better team this weekend.

Raise your hand if you expected to be reading that in this millennium.

Yep, Sunday's win changed the game for the program, and Hamilton has led the charge. Ten years ago, Florida State's program was defined by what it lacked - wins, depth, talent, following, facilities, hope and anything else pertaining to quality basketball. Now, it has boatloads of talent. It has former Rivals100 players battling for playing time on a deep bench, a bench that was an advantage against the Tar Heels on Sunday (you read that correctly). FSU has a slowly growing fanbase and plenty of wins. It also has an ACC Championship by proving it belonged - 15-4 in ACC play, wins against Duke and North Carolina on a neutral floor in a 24-hour span, and, most notably, going 4-1 against those league titans this season.

It wasn't a fluke. Florida State was just better than everyone else this time out.

"It means an awful lot for our program that we're able to crack into the upper echelon in such a rich traditional league like the ACC. Once in a while, Virginia has rotated in, Wake Forest has rotated in, North Carolina State, Maryland, they've all had their turns but no one has been able to move in between or ahead of them," said Hamilton. Only Duke and North Carolina have won more ACC games than FSU the past six years.

"To have that opportunity to raise the level of your program because you have two icons to compete against is a unique and special opportunity," he said. "Nationally, that will probably give us a little more recognition. I'm not real sure we can replace them because of the rich tradition and longevity in which they've been doing it, but we've got to try to earn our little niche. We're going to try to see whether or not we can be a part of, for the first time holding our finger up and saying we're No. 1."

No one saw this coming years ago - heck, no one saw this coming in January. Florida State was 9-6 with losses to two Ivy League schools and a woodshed-caliber beating from Clemson to start league play. There were legitimate questions whether this senior-heavy team would even make the NCAA Tournament. There were questions whether this program had already peaked.

Then something clicked.

Hamilton has taken criticism through his decade at FSU. A plague of nailbiting defeats once brought his coaching acumen into question. Six years without a bid in the NCAA Tournament put Hamilton on the hot seat.

But this year, you've got to ask yourself this: How many other coaches in the country could have rallied that 9-6 team and turned it into this?

A hot seat long forgotten, there may be nothing hotter in college basketball than Hamilton's squad, winners of 15 of its last 18 and a popular final four pick by many national experts. The Seminoles are enjoying their most consistent run of quality basketball in the 65-year history of the program. That's four straight NCAA berths now, and it's continuing to trend upward with the conference title and a No. 3 seed, which ties the highest in school history.

"It even goes back to a couple of years ago when Coach Hamilton brought us in," said senior Luke Loucks who joins Xavier Gibson and Deividas Dulkys as the winningest players in school history. "He said 'You can really change the culture of Florida State basketball.' We're stepping in the right direction of doing that and making our mark. We're not just some random team from Florida. We're in the thick of things every year."

Start with any perspective you want - this week, the last two months, the last 10 years - and this was a transforming feat few thought possible. The success is about this week, sure, but the accomplishment is grander considering by the abyss this program came from.

Sunday was rare, and it was mighty fine for Florida State. But Sunday was no fluke, either, just the latest chapter for a program that has found its way.



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