March 30, 2014
By Bob Thomas, Seminoles.com
NEW YORK CITY, N.Y.- The Florida State men's basketball team that takes the floor at Madison Square Garden Tuesday night to face Minnesota (9 p.m., ESPN) is a decidedly different squad than the one that ventured into Williams Arena on Dec. 3 and was summarily dispatched by the host Golden Gophers in their ACC-Big Ten Challenge match-up.
The Seminoles arrived in New York playing their most efficient basketball of the season, having dispatched Florida Gulf Coast, Georgetown and Louisiana Tech on their home floor to earn a return trip to the NIT semifinals for the first time since 1997.
"We've just focused on recognizing the opportunities we have in front of us," said senior forward Okaro White."That's why we've been playing good basketball lately."
While White and fellow seniors Ian Miller and Robert Gilchrist have provided leadership and productivity, the 'Noles are still playing in April largely because of their sophomore class. Aaron Thomas, Devon Bookert, Montay Brandon, Boris Bojanovsky and Michael Ojo, who will suit up for their 70th game Tuesday, have a clearer understanding of their roles, and more importantly, a healthy dose of confidence. And for good reason.
The `Noles are shooting .510 from the floor and a staggering .595 from 3-point range in three NIT games. Team scoring and rebounding averages are up compared to the regular season, and coach Leonard Hamilton'ssquad is getting to the free throw line with greater frequency.
FSU, however, is not merely riding a three-game hot hand as it tries to extend its winning streak to four games, and eventually five. The 'Noles have won seven of their last nine games dating to a 71-66 triumph at Pittsburgh on Feb. 23. That nine-game stretch has arguably produced the Seminoles best basketball of the season.
"We all wish we were playing like this throughout the whole season," White added. "It would be a different story and you would probably be talking to me about different things right now. Life pans out the way it pans out and all you can do is look at the opportunity you have."
It would appear the `Noles have seized the opportunity quite nicely down the stretch:
• FSU is shooting .479 from the floor, .440 from 3-point range and .745 from the free throw line over the last nine games, as compared to its season averages of .468 (FG), .386 (3FG) and .721 (FT);
• The `Noles are averaging 71.0 points over the past nine games (and 71.1 on the year), despite averaging fewer field goal and 3-point field goal attempts per game;
• Over the last nine games the `Noles are averaging 26.6 free throw attempts per game, compared to 23.7 attempts over the course of the season. They are also getting nearly 20 points a game from the line, compared to 17 during the regular season.
"We've been able to get things running strong here toward the end," White said. "We know we struggled throughout the middle part of the season. We were provided with a chance to get to the NCAA Tournament and we were a little saddened about not making it, but we had the opportunity in the NIT so as long we're playing basketball we're going to try and keep winning."
Brandon said the Seminoles have done a better job of taking care of the little details, from boxing out and making the extra pass, down the stretch. They have also become more accountable to each other and the pursuit of victory as the season has progressed.
"[Earlier] We had the attitude that if we didn't make a play somebody else would," Brandon said. "Now people are taking ownership and making plays themselves and that's helping us gain wins."
For just the third time in program history, the Seminoles are chasing a national tournament title. They join the 1971-72 team which lost to UCLA in NCAA national championship game, and the 1996-97 squad which advanced to the NIT final before falling to Michigan.
If the Seminoles can dispatch Minnesota, they will meet the SMU-Clemson winner in Thursday's NIT Championship game.
"We just need to keep the momentum and stick with what's working for us; getting the best shot, playing extremely hard on defense and playing to each other and using that synergy that we've developed over these last couple game," Brandon said. "We're trying to do something special and win a championship."
It has been 40 years since the last FSU basketball team closed the season with a victory. That was 1974, when the Seminoles were an independent team and the NCAA Tournament bracket featured just 26 teams.
The Seminoles have collectively risen to the occasion, in part because a number of players have taken their games to greater heights.
Thomas has raised his team-leading scoring average from 14.8 points to 23.0 in the postseason and is also pulling down two more rebounds a game. White has bumped his scoring average four points, to 17.7, from the regular season and has raised his field goal percentage by 13 percent. Bookert's 11.7 scoring average in the NIT is up from 8.3 on the season, and the point guard's rebounding has nearly doubled to 6.0 per game.
"I think everyone was trying to figure out what their roles were going to be over the course of the season," White said, offering his theory on FSU's improvement down the stretch. "Everyone has figured it out now. We're all playing, collectively, good as a group. Once we worked all of the kinks out, that's why you see a team that looks focused and is playing better together."
That focus is showing up not only on the floor, but in the meeting room, where the `Noles have been locked in preparing for each opponent.
"Months ago we were having to get things corrected (in meetings)," White said. "Now it's not so much about completely correcting things we did wrong. It's about fine-turning everything and being focused game-in and game-out."
"It's definitely a little more positive, that's for sure," Brandon said of those film sessions. "When you're winning games and have a chance to do something special, we're all in there and focused."
And the Seminoles' attention is clearly aimed at a Minnesota team that exposed their ball-handling and rebounding deficiencies four months ago in an 81-71 setback .
"It's definitely motivation," Brandon said of the rematch. "When we played there we know we didn't play up to our standards. .... I think this whole tournament is more about us displaying pride and wanting to accomplish something special this year and not let it become a waste after all the hard work that we did in the beginning of the year, the summer, going to Greece."
For this team, with a trio of seniors complemented by a host of youngsters, the long season which began taking shape in the shadow of the Parthenon is just about over.
"We're definitely excited," Brandon said. "We know this is it for the most part. We know we get to play in the basketball mecca of the world, which is Madison Square Garden. Everybody is excited, and that we get to play Minnesota again - a team we lost to earlier - everything is coming full circle for us."