The Florida State Seminoles are staying within state borders to play early-round games in the NCAA Tournament — finally.
For only the second time in 15 NCAA Tournament appearances, FSU will get to make a short trip to play the most important basketball of the season. The Seminoles (25-8) were seeded third in the West Region by the NCAA committee on Sunday and will play No. 13 Florida Gulf Coast (26-7) at Orlando’s Amway Center on Thursday.
The game will be played after the conclusion of No. 6 Maryland vs. No. 11 Xavier, which begins at 6:50 p.m. Both games will be on TNT and the winners will play on Saturday.
FCGU won the Atlantic Sun tournament championship over North Florida. FSU has played the Eagles only once, winning 58-53 in Tallahassee in the 2014 NIT.
“I’m excited for our players. I really am,” FSU coach Leonard Hamilton told the Orlando Sentinel about returning to the tournament for the first time in five years. “This is something we want for them. We want them to enjoy the experience. Any time you’re one of the top four seeds, it’s a significant position for your team and your program. We’re moving in the right direction.”
The only other time the ‘Noles have played in their home state was in 1993, when Pat Kennedy’s talent-laden team finished second in the ACC for the second year in a row and was the third seed in Orlando.
That was also FSU’s deepest run in the tournament since the 1972 Final Four team, as future NBA first-round draft picks Sam Cassell, Bob Sura, Charlie Ward and Doug Edwards paved the way for three victories and an Elite Eight game against Kentucky and Jamal Mashburn and Travis Ford. The ‘Noles led the Wildcats by one point at halftime, but Ford and Mashburn caught fire and Kentucky won 106-81.
Florida State has made it to the Sweet 16 only once since then, in 2011. The last NCAA trip for the ‘Noles was in 2012, the year they won the ACC Tournament championship. FSU beat St. Bonaventure in the first round in Nashville and fell to Cincinnati in the second round.
If the Seminoles win twice, they are bound for the regional semifinals in San Jose, Calif., possibly against Arizona or Notre Dame — which knocked FSU out of the ACC Tournament last week.
With the exception of the trip to Orlando in 1993, the Seminoles have led a vagabond’s life in the NCAA Tournament. Among their early round destinations since then have been Chicago, Buffalo, Boise and Oklahoma City.
Florida Gulf Coast is, as usual, an athletic team with experience and speed. Junior guard Brandon Goodwin leads the team with 18.2 points per game. Junior guard Christian Terrell of Jacksonville, a Providence graduate, averages 10.3 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.4 assists.
The Seminoles have had an Achilles heel away from home this season, with all eight losses coming on the road or at neutral sites.
“It’s one game and you go home,” Hamilton said about the urgency with which his team needs to approach the tournament. “So you have to be really focused, be at your best and that’s what it’s all about.”