Of preparing to play Duke, the Virginia Tech coach Seth Greenberg said this week: “They draw a line in the sand on every possession. You have to understand that before you can even think about winning the game.”
There may be better teams in college basketball, but in terms of will there’s only one Duke. And yet …
The strangest thing happened in Saturday’s ACC semifinal. There were two Dukes on the floor.
Said Mike Krzyzewski, at worst the second-best coach in the history of the sport: “This was not an X-and-O game; this was an effort game. If you lose, you want the kind of effort I had from my team. This was a winning effort.”
Yet Duke lost, which hadn’t happened in the ACC tournament since March 15, 2007, and has happened in this event only five times since 1998. Duke lost because it ran across an opponent that was a tad more gifted and every bit as tough.
Florida State, ostensibly a football school, is changing the dynamics of a league ruled by the twin towers of Tobacco Road. In 2009 the Seminoles upset North Carolina in the semis and played Duke for the title, and now they’ve done it the other way around. The masses might still look on FSU and see Chief Osceola planting his flaming spear in the sod of Doak Campbell Stadium, but you couldn’t watch Florida State work Saturday and not think: “That’s one classy basketball program.”
As Greenberg noted, Duke is the measuring stick for all hoops intangibles. FSU measured up in every category. It outplayed the Devils most of the game, lost the lead late, then snatched it back and held on. The ‘Noles made the Duke-like shots — Michael Snaer’s daring trey to put his team back ahead, then Luke Loucks’ nerveless jumper with 12 seconds left. And even then it wasn’t quite done: Seth Curry’s 45-foot cast off a midcourt deflection looked good until it spun out at the buzzer.
“Longest three seconds of my life,” Loucks said.
Talent? The ‘Noles have a ton of it. Guts and guile? Got that stuff, too.
Afterward Krzyzewski, who’s connoisseur enough to appreciate a great game no matter which side wins, gushed over both teams. “We lost playing winning basketball,” he said. Also this: “I think [Michael Snaer] is the best competitor in our league.”
And here we pause to note: This wasn’t one of the old-line ACC outposts Coach K was lauding — Wake Forest or Maryland or N.C. State — but a team that arrived in the Tiffany league in 1991 and has fought, even on its campus, for relevance.
FSU hired Leonard Hamilton in 2002. He’d done nice work at Oklahoma State and then Miami, but mostly he was known for two things: As being maybe the greatest recruiter ever — he lured the playground legend Fly Williams from Brooklyn to Austin Peay in the ’70s and at Kentucky, he landed McDonald’s All-Americans by the ton — and as having lasted only one season with the Washington Wizards working under Michael Jordan.
“The Ham,” as he was known in the Bluegrass, actually is anything but. He’s a dour sort who’s famous for guarding his words. But he has moved heaven and earth to bring big-time players to Tallahassee, and he has coached the heck out of them. Yes, FSU has the occasional lapse — it lost to Harvard and Princeton and Boston College this season, not to mention a 20-point drubbing at Clemson — but it has finished third in the ACC three years running.
Asked Saturday if his has become, to use his phrase, “a significant program,” Hamilton typically tried to duck the question. Then he said: “Competing in the ACC gives us a unique opportunity, with two of the greatest programs in the history of basketball in our league. If you can get in between them and compete with them, it allows you to keep moving forward.”
For the second time in three seasons, FSU has spoiled a Duke-Carolina ACC final in this city, which isn’t to say this is nothing but a spoiler program. It’s way better than that. The Seminoles were good enough to wax Carolina by 33 points and to beat Duke at Cameron this season, and they were better than Duke again Saturday.
It will take another mighty effort to unhorse Carolina on Sunday, but effort for Florida State is a given. This team doesn’t back down. “We needed one stop, and we couldn’t get that stop,” Krzyzewski said.
That’s not something that has happened often to Duke the last quarter-century, but it happened Saturday. Duke didn’t just meet its match. In FSU, it met its double.
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By Mark Bradley