TALLAHASSEE — Florida State has never won a national postseason tournament. The Seminoles have played in nine consecutive tournaments, including four straight NCAA appearances and five in the NIT — each has ended in a loss.
Playing in this year's NIT was a letdown for a team with NCAA tournament aspirations. The Seminoles (22-13) ended up as the top seed in the NIT and are in the semifinals for the first time since 1997. They face No. 1 seed Minnesota (23-13) tonight.
"You don't ever want to say 'backs against the wall,' but we got in a situation where we wanted to finish the season strong, wanted to have the opportunity to participate in a postseason tournament regardless," coach Leonard Hamilton said. "We're playing with more sense of urgency, we're focused.
"We have a lot of room for improvement, but I think we can all visually see that the body language is different, the effort, intensity, their communication on the court is different."
FSU has been known for its defense under Hamilton, but opponents averaged nearly 75 points each game during a 3-7 ACC slump in January and February. Neither Hamilton nor the players can pinpoint exactly what changed. A sophomore-dominated roster matured and Aaron Thomas evolved into the most consistent scorer. The effort and aggressiveness seemed to increase and the 71.1 points per game are the most since 2007-08.
The Seminoles have won seven of their last nine, allowing just under 70 points per game.
"There is no room for error," said forward Okaro White, a former Clearwater High standout. "We're just trying to make the most of this opportunity."
White grew up in New York before leaving for Clearwater. His memories of Madison Square Garden are limited.
"I know it sounds crazy, but I went there as a real young kid. But since I've grown up I haven't been there," he said. "I'm just as pumped up as everyone else who never played there before. It's one of the great experiences of your life as a basketball player to play there.
"And to be playing for a championship, that's huge. I've talked to all my teammates. Coming to New York, period, is huge."
The Seminoles lost to the Gophers 71-61 in early December. Minnesota finished seventh in the Big Ten.
"We're a totally different team from how we were back then," guard Ian Miller said. "We're in it, so might as well win it."