Though Selection Sunday is nine weeks away, Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton knows how important today's early season ACC showdown with North Carolina can be to his team's NCAA Tournament chances.
"If we're going to keep our postseason tournament opportunities alive, we're going to have to do something unusual and unexpected," he said — like what happened the last time the Tar Heels visited Tallahassee. FSU's 90-57 throttling of then-No. 3 UNC last January had students rushing the floor and coach Roy Williams pulling his players from the court in the closing seconds.
The Seminoles hope for another impressive win after another unnerving start.
An FSU team that began the preseason ranked in the Top 25 and returned four of its five leading scorers kicked off the season with a home loss to South Alabama. The Seminoles added two more resume-busting defeats, to Mercer and Auburn.
The impact of an 8-5 nonconference schedule: an RPI that began the week at 72 — below programs such as Santa Clara and Western Michigan — and a spot outside cbssports.com analyst Jerry Palm's latest tournament projections.
In Monday's ACC teleconference, Hamilton rejected the idea that FSU is among the nation's biggest disappointments.
Though the Seminoles have had solid production from all-conference candidate Michael Snaer (15.6 points a game) and Clearwater product Okaro White (13.3), they have been inconsistent. Hamilton cites youth — four freshmen average at least 11 minutes a game — and injuries, including a bone bruise No. 2 returning scorer Ian Miller is recovering from.
"Most teams that have five freshmen, seven first-year players, have been inconsistent," Hamilton said. "I don't think our team is much different than what others are going through."
At times, the Tar Heels have played four freshmen, and they have no seniors among their top five scorers. Thursday's 68-59 home loss to Miami made UNC 0-2 in the ACC and pushed Williams' team out of cbssports.com's latest bracket.
"It is a long year," Williams said this week. "It is a marathon that you're facing. You can't panic, and we don't intend to panic."
Both teams have climbed from similar depths before.
The last time UNC lost its first two league games, it won the next 10 and cut down the nets in Detroit as 2009 national champion.
Last winter FSU overcame a 9-5 nonconference record to claim its first ACC championship — with a win over UNC in the tournament final — and advance to the third round of the NCAA Tournament.
"They lost a couple games they shouldn't have lost early in the year," Maryland coach Mark Turgeon said of the Seminoles. "But they usually come on when it comes to the league schedule."
FSU has done that since the start of conference play, earning a 71-66 win at Clemson and rallying from 12 down Wednesday to snap a 13-game winning streak for Turgeon's Terrapins.
The Seminoles have never beaten UNC three times in a row, but Hamilton knows more early ACC wins must follow if his team hopes to make a school-record fifth consecutive trip to the NCAA Tournament.
"I guess you might say our backs are against the wall a little bit," he said. "We're going to have to do something exceptional to keep the upward climb we've had the last couple years."
Another victory over UNC would be a good place to start.
Matt Baker can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @MattHomeTeam.