FSU coach Pat Kennedy talks a good game, and he never goes into one believing his team can't win. Being competitive _ even in his first year in the Atlantic Coast Conference _ would never be satisfactory. Winning was always the goal.
But he admits a few doubts crossed his mind. It was a dream come true for Kennedy when the Seminoles became the ninth member of the ACC, but reality suggested there would be a few nightmares along the way.
"There was a fear of going to Carolina for our first league game and losing by 30, then having to try and pull your kids back together," Kennedy said. "There was a fear of having a really bad league record. Big losses and our conference record were my biggest concerns.
"I couldn't have predicted us doing what we've done."
The 16th-ranked Seminoles (18-9) play DePaul (17-6) at 1:30 today at the Florida Suncoast Dome. FSU's place in the NCAA Tournament already appears guaranteed.
Only two regular-season games remain before the ACC tournament, and the Seminoles already have reached a victory total many considered unattainable. With one regular-season conference game left, the Seminoles are 10-5 and in third place, trailing No. 1 Duke and No. 4 North Carolina. They still have a shot at catching the Tar Heels.
This all seemed so improbable at the beginning of the season, when Kennedy admitted the Seminoles "would be very fortunate" to go 8-8 in the ACC and that every league road game would be "an adventure."
Even his good friend, former North Carolina State coach Jim Valvano, counseled Kennedy and warned of tough times ahead.
"The first thing I told him was you can't win on the road," said Valvano, who will be analyzing today's game for ABC-TV. "So obviously he didn't listen to me."
The Seminoles won six of their eight league road games, and Kennedy became the first rookie coach in the ACC to win more than four. With a victory over North Carolina on Thursday, he would set an ACC record for conference victories by a first-year coach.
Coaches and observers are not that surprised with FSU's success. They point to a team with several star players that won the Metro Conference tournament title and advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament last year.
But other factors have contributed, including newcomers who have created a big impact, Kennedy and his staff spending more time preparing for games and practices, and a system that uses baffling defenses that lead to fast-break baskets.
"There are some simple reasons," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "They were an outstanding team last year, and they're better this year. They have talent and good coaching. His (Kennedy's) system is very good for the people he has. That is to keep it as simple as possible and not over-coach. I think he's done an excellent job of that. He's basically run his style no matter what team he's going against."
"I knew they were going to be good, but I didn't realize how good they were," Georgia Tech coach Bobby Cremins said. "Pat deserves an awful lot of credit. They just play so well together."
FSU's leading scorer (18.7 points per game) is Sam Cassell, a junior-college transfer who switched from point guard to shooting guard when Charlie Ward joined the team after football season. Ward, who has a chance to be FSU's starting quarterback in the fall, averages 7.2 points per game.
In Kennedy's three-guard offense, junior Chuck Graham and freshman Bob Sura play big roles. Sura, who wasn't signed until last spring, has started recent games and is averaging 12.6 points. Forward Rodney Dobard is shooting 65.2 percent from the field and is averaging 10.6 points.
And then there's forward Doug Edwards of Miami, perhaps the best recruit ever signed by Kennedy.
"There's one guy we can't play without, and that's Douglas," Kennedy said. "He's been somewhat overlooked this season. He's our mainstay up on the front line. Andre (Reid) and Rodney have not shown consistency. Without Douglas, that's one area where we'd really be hurting."
The Seminoles managed to knock off North Carolina on Dec.
15 without Edwards, who had been suspended for fighting in the previous game. Reid, who is averaging only 18 minutes per game, started and scored 12 points. Ward, who left immediately after the game so he could make football practice, scored 18.
"That was a game that went exactly the right way," Kennedy said.
And so, too, has the season. The 'Noles won at Wake Forest and Maryland in overtime and won at Virginia by one point when Cavs forward Bryant Stith _ the leading free-throw shooter in the league _ missed two last-second free throws.
Kennedy said he has noticed a difference in coaching in the ACC. Getting ready for games is more difficult and, once you're in them, "I feel like my head is going to explode off my shoulders," he said.
"I talked to him about the value of preparation," said Valvano, who hired Kennedy as an assistant at Iona. "I don't think you're going to find a league where coaches prepare any more. You won't get any "gimme' games. A team might be down in the ACC, but it'll still give you all you can handle because they'll be prepared.
"Everything is intensified. You have to be a psychiatrist and a psychologist. You have to handle the media better because there'll be more demands. He's obviously done all of that. To me, he is hands-down ACC Coach of the Year."
Kennedy said he's not doing much different from his previous five years at FSU, when the Seminoles were in the Metro Conference and made three NCAA Tournament appearances. It's just that more people are noticing.
"I've always half-court trap-pressed, going back to when I was at Iona," Kennedy said. "And I've always believed in having a special defense that people don't practice a lot against. As a coach, one of the things I've always hated playing against is changing defenses. So we've taken trapping defenses and changing defenses and tried to confuse people with it. Being relentless on defense, the kids enjoy it. And it creates offense for us."
Kennedy said he and his players were awakened by an 89-71 loss to Syracuse in the ACC-Big East Challenge. The Seminoles looked horrible in the game, and it probably had a lot to do with people believing this could be a long season.
"We learned from that," Kennedy said. "We also learned from the loss at Duke (86-70). I really challenged the kids after the game. I said, "I don't care if Duke is No. 1 or No. 10 or whatever. They're in our league. We have to play them, we have to beat them.' "
That's about the only thing the Seminoles have been unable to do _ yet.
FSU in the ACC
Florida State is 10-5 in the ACC. Here's its record and remaining games:
Dec. 15-x FSU 86, North Carolina 74
Jan. 4 Virginia 77, FSU 68 (OT)
Jan. 6-x Duke 86, FSU 70
Jan. 11-x FSU 88, W. Forest 85 (OT)
Jan. 18-x FSU 91, Maryland 83 (OT)
Jan. 23-x FSU 83, Georgia Tech 79
Jan. 25 FSU 98, N.C. State 76
Jan. 30 Duke 75, FSU 62
Feb. 1 FSU 79, W. Forest 78
Feb. 5 Maryland 93, FSU 85
Feb. 8 FSU 102, Clemson 90
Feb. 10-x FSU 87, N.C. State 79
Feb. 13-x FSU 64, Virginia 63
Feb. 15 FSU 80, Georgia Tech 67
Feb. 18-x Clemson 68, FSU 67
Feb. 27 North Carolina
March 12-14 ACC tournament
x _ away