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A dubious achievement for 'Noles

In the NIT, no one can see you screen.

No one watches. No one remembers. No one cares. America's opinion of the NIT: Be sure you have batteries in the remote control in case it comes on the channel you're watching.

The NIT is a collection of mediocrity gathering to grumble about being found out. An event some say should be discontinued, played largely by teams whose seasons should be. A sock hop for those not cool enough to be invited to the prom.

And the good news: FSU is doing wonderful in it.

Most of the country doesn't care, of course. Most places, the NIT is an afterthought that gets attention only when there is nowhere else to aim it _ like college basketball in Florida. Win the NIT and you're the 65th-best team in the country. What do you get for that? One of those $10 Rolexes they sell outside Madison Square Garden?

You know what it's like playing in the NIT while the NCAA Tournament is going on? It's like being Thomas Edison's brother on the day he invented the light bulb and having someone turn to you and say, "Yeah? And what did you do today?"

And so it is with the size of the pond in mind that we talk about what a big fish the Seminoles suddenly have become. This is what they mean by bittersweet _ a sweet little streak in a bitter little tournament.

On one hand, the Seminoles are making this statement: "Hey, look. We've finally come together." On the other hand, they're saying: "See. You were right when you said we were a bunch of underachievers."

This is the problem with the NIT. Failure validates the NCAA's decision not to invite you. Success validates a season's worth of criticism.

Yet, say what you will, the Seminoles seem to have reclaimed a little something for themselves in this NIT. There is a reason to smile at FSU's basketball program again.

"For us, post-season was important," FSU coach Pat Kennedy said. "To get back in the post-season and play well has turned this back in the right direction again. We've set the stage for the future."

Sometimes you find good things in the strangest places. That is the real story of FSU and the NIT. The Seminoles have the look of a team that just wants a little more ball out of the season, a few more possessions. What's wrong with that?

"I always felt like this team was going to win games," Kennedy said. "I guess the difference lately is that we've matured."

Oh, the success makes you a little wistful. Every time the FSU team flies downcourt for another basket, you wonder where this has been all along.

This was the most enigmatic team in the country. It could beat North Carolina by 13 but score only 44 against N.C. State. It could beat Wake Forest but blow a six-point lead and lose by 13 to Georgia Tech. It could beat Maryland and Clemson, but it won only one ACC road game. It was hard to tell where the program was going. It was hard to tell if the coach was staying.

For much of the season the team looked as if it were lost. There were flashes, just to remind you what kind of talent was underneath, but they didn't last. So fans responded to the up-and-down nature of the team the best they could _ they put heat on Kennedy and acted cool toward the team.

It was a marked difference to the early '90s, when the Seminoles kicked open the door to the ACC and acted as if they really weren't that impressed by what they saw. FSU reached the Sweet 16 in 1992, the round of eight the next year.

Since then, times have been hard. Academics made recruiting harder. The ACC made the competition tougher.

"It's hard to build the same program twice," Kennedy said. "I don't want to point to anyone, but some guys have jumped ship in this kind of situation."

So say what you will about the NIT, about the empty stands and the lack of interest. True, it isn't much of a tournament anymore, and even winning it wouldn't erase all of a team's frustrations.

But don't blame FSU for enjoying the ride. Whatever the NIT is, winning it beats losing it. And even a $10 Rolex can tell you that for FSU, this is a far, far better time.