TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The Florida State Seminoles have never won a national postseason tournament. The program has played in nine consecutive tournaments, including four consecutive 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. Florida State was one of the teams on the NCAA tournament bubble thanks, in part, to a January-February stretch in which the Seminoles lost seven of 10 Atlantic Coast Conference games.The Seminoles (22-13) responded to win three of their final four regular season games, then added an ACC tournament victory to their resume. The run was too little, too late. But the Seminoles didn't hang their heads, and now the top-seed in the NIT has advanced to the semifinals for the first time since 1997. A win against No. 1 seed Minnesota (23-13) on Tuesday puts them in the championship game.
No. 1 seeded SMU hosts No. 3 seed Clemson in the other semifinal.
"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. Our defense has gotten a little better.
"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, and that's part of the growing process."
Florida State has been known for its defense under Hamilton, but opponents averaged nearly 75 points each game during those seven winter losses. Neither Hamilton nor the players have been able to 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 past nine and held opponents to just under 70 points per game.
"There is no room for error," forward Okaro White said. "I don't think [losing] was a benefit because we really wanted to go to the NCAA tournament. We're just trying to make the most of this opportunity."
Thomas said, "After those ACC losses we just decided we just had to step it up and that was it."
The drastic turnaround is just part of the process of coaching a young team, Hamilton said.
Thomas has averaged 23 points in three NIT games. Opponents have been held to under 40 percent shooting in five of the last nine games. The Seminoles have won shootouts - 101-90 against Georgetown - and low-scoring battles - 58-53 against Florida Gulf Coast.
"They're improving at rate that I expected them to improve at," Hamilton said. "We all as coaches would love for it to happen instantaneously, but that's not necessarily the way it works.
"I keep using the word process, that's just what it really is. You go through it, you grow, you learn, you mature, you make some mistakes and you learn from it and hopefully you correct it."
The Seminoles have the opportunity to show exactly how much they've grown against a Gophers team they met in early December. Minnesota won 71-61 and finished seventh in the Big Ten regular season standings. The six teams in front all earned berths in the NCAA tournament.
"We're a totally different team from how we were back then," guard Ian Miller said. "We in it, so might as well win it. That's our attitude. There hasn't been a season I've been a part of where there ain't been ups and downs."