Florida State continues its rise in the ACC

ATLANTA -- About 45 minutes after Florida State's thrilling 62-59 win over Duke in the semifinals of the ACC tournament, Seminoles coach Leonard Hamilton shared a special moment with one of his most well-respected counterparts.

While standing outside FSU's locker room, Hamilton was greeted by a smiling Mike Krzyzewski, who had just watched Hamilton's Seminoles best his Blue Devils in a tournament he basically owns. Coach K congratulated Hamilton and praised his team.

As Hamilton delivered his thanks, Krzyzewski briefly paused, giving Hamilton one last look that read, "Hell of a team."

That look was nothing new for Hamilton. He's been getting it from opposing coaches for a few years, it's just taken those outside of the ACC some time to acknowledge them.

Interestingly enough, national respect isn’t exactly flowing for the third-winningest ACC program over the past seven years.

A Florida State team that won a school-record 12 conference games during the regular season and is line for a top-4 seed in this year's NCAA tournament shouldn't be overlooked like it is.

"Because we have not been at the top -- been No. 1 or No. 2 -- we haven't gotten a lot of recognition," Hamilton said. "We've been moving our program along for quite some time, it's just that you guys have just started to notice."

As FSU prepares to capture its first ACC tournament title (in only its second championship appearance), it does so in a totally different place than it was months ago. FSU has won 17 of 20 games and is looking to take the season series against tournament top seed North Carolina -- an improbable thought midway through the season.

FSU struggled to find itself and players say there was a disconnect between guards and bigs. Forward Bernard James said selfishness ruled at times, destroying the "team" and leaving individuals.

"We'd go out and try to make spectacular plays one-on-one and that didn't work for us and that's why we got drummed by teams early in the season," James said.

Drummed as in losing by 18 to Florida and 20 to Clemson and losing 6 of 10 games from the end of November to the beginning of January.

The Clemson whooping changed everything, James said. Players and coaches gathered shortly after to speak candidly about how things weren't working. Slackers were called out and even coaches received constructive criticism from players.

Guards were told they were shooting too much and big men were called lazy in the ultimate open forum.

"Everybody knew what the other guy next to him was thinking," James said. "We identified our problems and everybody worked toward fixing them. That's what brought us to the point we are now."

Two games after the catastrophe at Clemson, FSU pounded UNC 90-57. Two games later, the Noles shocked Duke at Cameron Indoor.

Now, Florida State is a win away from breaking new ground … again.

Even if FSU loses Sunday, it's obvious that the Noles aren’t going away in the ACC. Behind the UNC-Duke current, FSU has been tirelessly working to demolish the notion that the ACC is a two-team league.

"At Florida State, we haven't thought that way in a long time," James said. "It's been about four or five years since they thought that the ACC was a two-team conference.

"This year, we've put ourselves in a really good position to show the rest of the world that the ACC is not a two-team conference."

Added forward Xavier Gibson: "We're coming in there and breaking Tobacco Road up a little bit -- mixing it up -- and that's what we came to do."

A win Sunday will likely bring more onto FSU’s bandwagon, but the Seminoles aren't worried about that because they don’t have time to worry about impressing outsiders.

For Hamilton, it’s all about getting the best out of his players and making sure they play and win for themselves.

"We have to consistently keep doing it and maybe we'll crack into that area that you guys call respect," he said.