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FSU men back in Top 25 -- but can they stay?

Photo by Mike Phillips

Photo by Mike Phillips

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- There's nothing like a little experience to help out in tough times.

Florida State (15-5, 5-1 ACC) bounced back from one of its most disappointing losses in Leonard Hamilton's nine-year tenure to reel off four straight Atlantic Coast Conference wins, including one over previously unbeaten Duke.

It has vaulted the Seminoles into the Top 25 and left them positioned for a run at their first league title.

"We also know that it is only January and we want to continue to improve and be ranked in March," Hamilton said on Wednesday.

The 22nd-ranked Seminoles, the only team to defeat third-ranked Duke this season, look to build on their recent success on Saturday when they visit Clemson.

The recent turnaround has been keyed by a suffocating defense and the improved play of point guard Derwin Kitchen and center Bernard James.

An unusually strong rebounder for a guard, the 6-3 Kitchen scored 17 of his game-high 22 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in Florida State's 66-61 upset of the Blue Devils on Jan. 12.

"He's gaining the confidence and the understanding of when he needs to step up," Hamilton said. "He's given us direction."

And then there is James, a military veteran and junior college transfer who has played almost flawlessly since moving into the starting lineup last month. He's shooting just over 68 percent for the season and averaging two blocked shots a game. James has made 29 of his last 38 field goal attempts.

He replaced 6-11 Xavier Gibson, who suffered an apparent season-ending knee injury in a loss to Butler on Dec. 23 during the Diamond Head Classic in Hawaii.

Another lineup adjustment occurred just before the tip-off of the Duke game when Hamilton pulled slumping 3-point shooter, Deividas Dulkys, from the starting lineup in favor of frontline help from rugged sophomore Terrance Shannon, who is spelled by a highly talented 18-year-old, Okaro White. Both are nearly a half foot taller than the 6-3 Dulkys.

"We felt that once we got into ACC play we would have to be bigger," Hamilton said. "Size does effect the game sometimes."

That's particularly on defense where last year's ACC defensive player of the year, 6-9 Chris Singleton.

"He's a stopper," Hamilton said. "He shuts down passing lanes, block shots and helps out our younger guys. He'll guard anyone from a one to a five."

Florida State leads the nation in limiting opponents to 35 percent shooting and is sixth with an average of just over six blocked shots a game.

It's a mature club. James, a six-year Air Force veteran, turns 26 on Feb. 7. Kitchen turns 25 and Dulkys 23 in March. James' 7-foot backup, Jon Kreft, also a junior college transfer, will be 25 before the start of next season.

Things weren't looking quite as promising after an early January 65-60 loss at Auburn, a team still winless in the Southeastern Conference.

"This is as disappointed as I've been since I've been at Florida State," Hamilton said afterward.

That was followed by a loss at Virginia Tech on Jan. 8 that left the Seminoles at 11-5 and 1-1 in the ACC.

"When you can learn from a loss and move on, it's not all bad," Hamilton said. "Those two losses brought us closer together. We never lost any confidence."

Four days later the Seminoles snapped back with their third victory in a decade over a top-ranked Duke team.

And they've surged despite Singleton's recent offensive slump. The team's leading scorer is averaging 12.7 points in league games and shot just 25 percent in the last three games while averaging 7.7 points.

"If we're going to win we've got to get the potential out of all of our guys," Hamilton said. "Our guys are playing within themselves a lot, playing to their strengths."

And, Hamilton hopes, a strong finish will be rewarded with a high seed at tournament time.