Florida State’s Ian Miller, left, and Michael Snaer celebrate after the Seminole’s win against North Carolina in the ACC championship game Sunday. With victories against North Carolina and Duke in the ACC tournament, the Seminoles are one of the hottest teams entering the NCAA tournament.
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Tenth-ranked Florida State lives off its defense and is now getting the offense into gear — just in time for the NCAA tournament.
The Atlantic Coast Conference champions have been vulnerable when they’ve committed too many turnovers or shot poorly, but they’re virtually unstoppable otherwise. North Carolina came to Tallahassee in mid-January and left with a 33-point drubbing after catching the Seminoles hitting on all cylinders. Deividas Dulkys lit up the Tar Heels for 32 on one of the two nights he led the team in scoring this year.
Florida State has scored 80 or more point in three of its last four games. Seven different Florida State players have been the top scorer in at least one game this season with Michael Snaer leading the way in 17 games. But the season didn’t start that way: The Seminoles suffered through two early forgettable halves when they scored just 10 points in one game and 14 in another that resulted in two of their losses.
“The pain from some of those losses is probably the reason we’re playing pretty good right now,” Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said.
After a 9-6 start, Hamilton decided to simplify the offense. Florida State has gone 16-3 since.
“Instead of doing more things a few times we’re doing fewer things more often,” Hamilton said Tuesday. “Everyone is more comfortable with what they’re supposed to be doing.”
And it’s hard to tell which Seminole will be doing the damage in Hamilton’s nine-man rotation.
Snaer averages 14.5 points a game and shoots 42.1 percent from 3-point distance while super-sub Ian Miller averages 10.9 points and defensive specialist Bernard “Sarge” James averages 10.5 points on 60.9 percent shooting. Four other Seminoles have scored 220 or more points during the season. Dulkys, who shoots 37.7 percent from behind the arc, made eight 3-pointers in a 90-57 win against North Carolina.
The Seminoles (24-9) open tournament play Friday against unranked St. Bonaventure (20-11) in the first round at Nashville, Tenn., and expect a tough game from a school making its first NCAA tournament appearance in 12 years.
“They’ve got an outstanding go-to guy that everybody says is a first-round draft pick,” Hamilton said about 6-9, 250-pound St. Bonaventure power forward Andrew Nicholson, who had 26 points, 14 rebounds and eight blocked shots in a 67-56 win against Xavier in the Atlantic 10 tournament title game. “They’re extremely hungry, aggressive and determined. In reality, the lower seeds could be just as talented and well prepared as the higher seeds.”
The Seminoles are well acquainted with being on the outside looking in, going a decade without an invitation to the “Big Dance” before breaking through in 2009. And they’ve been there every year since, embarking on a fourth straight bid but much closer to home than previous tournament trips to Boise, Idaho and Buffalo, N.Y.
Florida State advanced to the round of 16 in last year’s tournament with wins against Texas A&M and Notre Dame before being eliminated in overtime by Virginia Commonwealth, last year’s Cinderella story.
“When it’s one-and-done, you lose one and you’re going home,” Hamilton said. “We sure don’t want to go home.”
Hamilton would love to reach the Final Four on the 40th anniversary of Florida State’s only previous appearance. UCLA defeated the Seminoles, 81-76, for the 1972 national title.
But there’s a lot of work between now and then, beginning Friday in Nashville where the 6-10 James will be busy with Nicholson and his entourage.
James, who spent six years in the U.S. Air Force that included one assignment in Iraq, has blocked 158 shots in his two seasons at Florida State despite not moving into the starting lineup until the 13th game of his junior season.
And while the offense has come around down the stretch, it’s defense that has been the centerpiece of Florida State’s 94-40 run the past four years.
The 6-4 Snaer is also the leader of Hamilton’s self-described “junkyard dog” defense that has ranked at the top or near it in field goal defense the last three years. He and James were first-team choices on the ACC’s all-defensive team.
For Hamilton and his players, the trip to Nashville is a business trip.
“We all know we’re in it for one thing, to win as many games as we can,” senior point guard Luke Loucks said.
Six more would be perfect.