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FSU Men - Especially Seniors - Relish Return To NCAA Tournament

Tim Linafelt | March 12, 2017

By Tim Linafelt
Seminoles.com Senior Writer

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – In theory, there wasn’t much suspense at Florida State’s NCAA tournament Selection Show party.

But don’t tell that to the Seminoles, who, upon gathering at a local Tallahassee restaurant for the show, had to wait until the bracket’s final region was announced to see their names in the tournament field.

“I didn’t know,” fifth-year senior center Michael Ojo said.

“We were just very anxious,” fellow senior Jarquez Smith said. “Most of us couldn’t sleep.”

Not that anyone could blame them. With their Florida State careers nearing their conclusions, Ojo and Smith had wondered if this day would ever come.

Finally, a little bit after 6 p.m., it became official: Florida State’s name flashed on the projector screen as a No. 3 seed in the NCAA tournament’s West region, a cheer roared through the restaurant and the Seminoles could exhale, knowing for sure that they had a place on college basketball’s biggest stage.

The Seminoles will play their first NCAA tournament game in five years on Thursday against 14th-seeded Florida Gulf Coast. Tip-off is set for approximately 9 p.m., at the Amway Center in Orlando.

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“It was a great moment,” said Xavier Rathan-Mayes, a fourth-year junior who arrived in the same freshman class with Smith.

“It was kind of a sense of relief, knowing how hard we’ve worked since the start of the summer, the hours that we’ve put in, the hard work we’ve put in the practice gym and the season we’ve had to get to this point.”

For some Seminoles, the journey began long before this summer.

Ojo arrived for the 2012-13 season, a year after Florida State’s run to the ACC tournament championship and perhaps at the height of expectations for the program.

Rathan-Mayes and Smith then came a year later, and the three form a trio of veteran Seminoles who have seen two seasons end in the National Invitation Tournament and a third end with no postseason at all.

Those veterans were on the minds of their coaches and teammates on Sunday evening.

“I’m excited for our players, I really am,” FSU coach Leonard Hamilton said. “This is something we want for them. We want them to enjoy the experience, especially our seniors, Ojo and Jarquez. They’ve been here, and they’ve worked very hard.”

Added freshman Jonathan Isaac, “It’s huge. It’s a blessing to see these guys who have been here last year and years before, like Ojo, just now get it done and see their excitement when we were watching (the selection show).”

Their tickets punched, the Seminoles’ next goal is to make the most of their time in the tournament.

That starts with Thursday’s matchup against Florida Gulf Coast (26-7), which clinched its NCAA bid by winning the Atlantic Sun Conference tournament.

The Eagles gained national fame in 2013 when, under the guidance of former FSU assistant Andy Enfield, they upset Georgetown and San Diego State on the way to the Sweet 16.

Enfield, however, is now coaching at Southern California, and no one from that Sweet-16 team is still on the roster.

FSU beat FGCU in the first round of the 2014 NIT, the only previous meeting between the two.

“It doesn’t really matter where we are or who we’re playing,” Hamilton said. “Once you’re in the tournament, you’re playing against all great teams. They’re all going to be well prepared with a load of talent. You have to take your game seriously. Being that this is our first time we’ve been there in a few years, I’m sure our guys will be excited and be at their best.”

Based on their reactions Sunday, excitement shouldn’t be a problem for the Seminoles.

“You can’t explain it,” Smith said. “For that moment to happen, when that’s all that we’ve been talking about and that’s one of our goals for the entire year, I can’t really explain it.

“It’s one of the greatest feelings ever.”

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