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Column: How sweet it is for FSU – and it’s undoubtedly very sweet

It’s so predictable. It happens every spring. And it is the other tradition unlike any other.

With apologies to the Masters, doubting the outlook for the Florida State men’s basketball team in the coming season is a spectator sport with high drama. Except we know the script, we’ve seen it all unfold and it often makes you want to say, “I’ve seen this movie before. You’ll like the ending.”

The plot begins with this: FSU loses a star or two to the NBA. Doubts begin to creep into the mind and the focus is always on who has departed instead of who is returning. And there is a conclusion that Leonard Hamilton and the staff can’t possibly pull it off again.

Then each November, media who cover the ACC try (and often fail) to project where teams will finish. In 2020, they did better: Virginia would win, followed by Duke and FSU. In 2019, FSU was picked fifth and won the ACC regular season title. Some years the media is closer than others but often the theme is the same and the Seminoles finish far higher than the projections.

Over-delivering is the measure of a very good coaching staff. Leonard Hamilton and the staff have consistently exceeded preseason expectations. 

To pick FSU at No. 3 in November 2020 isn’t really a lack of vision, although it could be argued the defending ACC regular-season champs weren’t given much respect compared to the talent lost while expectations were high for what would be a loaded Virginia team and the young talent Duke had assembled. 

There was still a dose of healthy skepticism of what the Seminoles could do without a pair of lottery picks (Patrick Williams and Devin Vassell) as well as floor general Trent Forrest. There was widespread anticipation of Scottie Barnes, but still questions persisted through the offseason. How good would this team be in 2020-21? Very good, arguably one of the best in the ACC. But now in March, in Hamilton’s view, a spot in the Sweet 16 didn’t merit celebration in the locker room.

“We start looking at what we accomplish at the end of the season, now is not the time to take any bows,” Hamilton said. “This is not the time. This is kind of where we are. If we are satisfied with just where we are now, then I guess we can pack our bags and go home. These guys are pretty focused, and one of the indications is that nobody was jumping up and down and high-fiving or getting overly excited in the locker room. Everyone was sitting there calm, focused, like we had been here before, and that’s the signs of a team maturing and with a purpose.”

Let those words sink in for a moment. A third straight Sweet 16 is worthy of appreciation but not celebration at Florida State. This would be an expectation from one of college basketball’s blue bloods. But not the New Bloods, and that’s worth noting. There is clearly a feeling, from Hamilton throughout the roster, that this team (and program) can achieve much more.

As media and fans, we had doubts throughout the season. The UCF loss in December. The COVID pauses in January and February. The road losses at UNC and Notre Dame. The ACC Tournament title game loss to Georgia Tech. By itself any one of those losses could be shrugged off as being a downer in a season of challenges, from establishing new roles for veterans and developing newcomers like Scottie Barnes and Sardaar Calhoun. Not to mention coaching through a pandemic with all of the logistical challenges in the preseason as well as in-season.

As it turned out, this FSU basketball team is up there with some of the most accomplished in the program’s history. (Best is an arguable term so let’s go with accomplished as a discussion point.) The Seminoles have had just seven teams reach at least the Sweet 16 in the history of the program and four have come under coach Leonard Hamilton. We should not entirely use success in the NCAA Tournament as a measuring stick but we tend to remember the players, the upsets, the ACC titles and what happens in March.

Thinking about those items as a barometer, this 2020-21 team is up there. Is it one of the five best in FSU history? Not yet, mostly because it missed on an ACC regular-season title and ACC Tournament title. But a trip to the Elite Eight (a win over Michigan on Sunday) or Final Four (a win over Alabama or UCLA) are attainable and would vault the legend of this team up among the most accomplished in Seminoles history (FSU made its only Final Four in 1972). And it’s worth noting we missed out on having this conversation with the 2019-20 team, which we will forever have strong positive feelings but one where we’re left to ponder how fun it would have been to watch in March 2020 as well as how far the Seminoles could have gone in the NCAA Tournament.

The beauty of this FSU team in 2020-21 is the flaws are evident, just as they are for every team in college basketball this side of Gonzaga and perhaps Baylor. Great college teams gut out wins and mask flaws. FSU has done it with depth and defense but also efficiency on the offensive end. The 53 points allowed on Monday was the fewest allowed in an NCAA Tournament game by FSU and the 20 points that Colorado scored in the first half is the lowest total by an FSU opponent in any half this season. FSU also shot 62.5 percent from the floor in the second half. There were 15 turnovers but that’s something of a win considering the recent issues away from Tallahassee. Play defense like that, make shots and limit the turnovers? FSU showed why it is staying in Indianapolis a while.

The other beauty of this FSU team is a star emerges each game. RaiQuan Gray has scored in double figures in 13 of his last 16 games, the most consistent player FSU has had down the stretch. Gray had nine points and six rebounds on Monday but he went just 2 for 8 from the floor. It’s clear he is at the top of the scouting report. And so was Balsa Koprivica, who nearly produced three straight double-doubles going into the Colorado game before running into foul trouble on Monday. Scottie Barnes and M.J. Walker struggled often until late, even though Barnes made some highlight-worthy passes and Walker took some charges that fired up the team. But who emerges as a star? It was Polite, who shot 8 for 12 from the floor with 22 points, five rebounds, four assists, four steals and just one assist. It’s one of the most impressive all-around lines from a Seminole in a postseason.

FSU is now in the Sweet 16 for a third straight NCAA Tournament, dating to the 2017-18 team but also not counting the canceled tournament last March. The Seminoles may not be the blue bloods but the New Bloods have established a hoops power.

“The culture we build, we buy in,” Polite said when asked about the team’s postseason success. “We love one another. We hang out all the time and talk basketball, and we’re extremely close outside of basketball. On the court, that just makes everything a lot easier.”

No matter what happens on Sunday or the rest of the way, this season’s FSU team has earned the respect from fans and media for what is has replaced in terms of talent and also what it accomplished over the last four months. It also survived an upset bid from a No. 13 seed in UNC Greensboro, and it’s a fate that sent many of the top seeds home from Indianapolis after the first weekend. Seven teams who are a Nos. 1-4 seed are already home, including No. 1 seed Illinois as well as No. 2 seeds Ohio State and Iowa. In what has been an upside-down tournament, FSU is very much in it.

What’s next? We can doubt and predict but undoubtedly we’ll be watching. And we’re debating it, thinking how much longer this run can go and if the Seminoles can knock off a susceptible No. 1 seed in Michigan. That’s a good conversation to have and one that’s worth taking time to praise the job done by the FSU coaching staff and players. A sweet ride indeed.