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A Final Four is the only thing missing from the FSU story

John Romano | The Seminoles have been among college basketball’s elite teams for the past five years but lack a defining moment to cement their reputation.
With five Sweet 16 appearances in the last 10 NCAA Tournaments, FSU coach Leonard Hamilton has more than every other Florida State coach combined.
With five Sweet 16 appearances in the last 10 NCAA Tournaments, FSU coach Leonard Hamilton has more than every other Florida State coach combined. [ ELISE AMENDOLA | Associated Press ]
Published Mar. 26
Updated Mar. 26

Some teams have your attention before your butt is in the seat.

It’s the name, the uniform, the tradition. It’s Duke, Kentucky, Kansas. They have you at hello, and sometimes you don’t even notice that they’ve already said goodbye.

Other basketball teams, it must be said, take longer to pick out of a crowd.

Oh, hey, Florida State! When did you get here?

The truth is, the Seminoles have been here a while, in every sense of that phrase. While a lot of big-name schools are home this weekend, FSU is making its third consecutive Sweet 16 appearance, and only Gonzaga and Michigan, Sunday’s opponent, can match that streak.

If that doesn’t impress you, then how about this:

For the last five years, FSU’s winning percentage within the Atlantic Coast Conference is second only to Virginia. That means the Seminoles have a better winning percentage than Duke. Better than North Carolina. Better than Louisville and Syracuse. And if they beat Michigan on Sunday, they will have tied North Carolina for the most NCAA Tournament wins by an ACC team in that span.

And, yet, the world seems nonplussed about FSU returning to the stage. It’s almost as if the Seminoles are penalized for their steady success. They are not the trendy upstarts, and they are not the marquee attraction. They are somewhere between fresh and historic. They are the Honda that’s still on the road while the Maserati and Lamborghini are often in the shop.

So will it take a Final Four appearance for FSU to get its due?

“You guys are probably better suited than I am to understand the mindset of fans and how they look at things,” FSU coach Leonard Hamilton said when I asked him that question. “When you accomplish things like getting to the Final Four, that gives you a certain level of recognition.

“We’ve coined the phrase ‘new bloods’ because we realize we’re in a conference of schools that have 75-80 years of successful tradition ahead of us. If we think we’re going to become a blue blood in our lifetime, that might not be something we can accomplish. But we’re trying to coin our own phrase, our own little niche … and that’s seeing if we can stack successful season on top of successful season.”

Last year could have been the breakthrough season that forced the world to pay attention. The Seminoles were on top of the ACC and Dick Vitale had picked them as his favorite to win the national title when the pandemic shut the season down.

A few months later, Patrick Williams and Devin Vassell were both chosen in the first 11 picks of the NBA draft and FSU was starting over again.

“Coach Ham does a great job of keeping his foot on the gas and moving forward and that transfers to the players, we do the same thing,” said senior guard M.J. Walker. “Coach Ham has done a great job with that, and I pray in the future it continues to get better. But we’re doing the best with what we have right now and continuing to push the program forward.”

Hamilton, 72, has done this with a unique approach. He’s not going to compete with Duke or Kentucky for the nation’s most heralded recruits, so he looks for talented players willing to buy into his system. Players who put teamwork ahead of ego, and defense ahead of stats.

Take the 2021 Seminoles, for instance. They’re not the most gifted offensive team and have a tendency to turn the ball over too much, but they held both UNC-Greensboro and Colorado to under 55 points in the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament. No other defense pulled off that feat last week.

That’s one of the reasons FSU players have been coveted in the NBA draft. Teams know they’re getting players who are willing to fill specific roles on the court. In the past four years, the Seminoles have had six players drafted, including four in the first round.

When you think about it that way, FSU has already checked most of the boxes for an elite program in recent seasons. Develop pro prospects? Check. Regular season success? Check. NCAA Tournament consistency? Check.

The only thing missing is the elusive Final Four. It’s been 49 years since Florida State made its only Final Four appearance, and the tournament’s influence has grown exponentially since then.

“Every team in America starts the season out wanting to be standing on that ladder at the end saying, ‘We’re No. 1.’ We’re driven like all other teams wanting to get that,” Hamilton said. “Getting to the Final Four represents a certain level of success that everyone is trying to get to. What we’re trying to do is worry about what we can control, and that’s preparing ourselves for the next game. The next practice.

“We’re still talking about the 1972 Final Four. That alone tells you that it’s meaningful and something the fans and school and alumni can be proud of. But in order to do that, there’s an approach you have to follow.”

John Romano can be reached at jromano@tampabay.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.

‘New bloods’

Since 2016-17, the Seminoles have the second-best conference record in the ACC.

Team Record Pct

Virginia 72-19 .791

FSU 61-28 .685

Duke 62-30 .674

UNC 57-33 .633

Louisville 54-33 .621