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Seminoles say they love a challenge

Florida State won 22 games this season, and finished third in the Atlantic Coast Conference with 10 wins. But when veteran coach Leonard Hamilton entered the HSBC Arena interview room Thursday, he was greeted by exactly three reporters.

Most of the rest of the media world was out on the court watching Syracuse practice. The ones that weren't clearly don't think the Seminoles have much of a chance tonight against Gonzaga in the opener of the evening session.

Gonzaga has developed a coast-to-coast cult following as it hits town making its 12th straight NCAA appearance (only Kansas, Duke and Michigan State have more). Lots of folks have the Zags on a collision course for a Sunday meeting against Syracuse.

Florida State, meanwhile, snapped an 11-year NCAA absence with last year's first-round loss to Wisconsin in Boise, Idaho. It's still a school known mostly for football coach Bobby Bowden.

"I almost feel honored that if they're an eighth seed and we're a ninth seed, people are considering us being kind of close to where they are," Hamilton said. "I know that's going to be a challenge but that's what excites you.

"I told our players I can't think of a better bracket to be in than to play against -- I guess you have to call them -- a perennial power now. And if we're successful against them, you get a chance to play against the local team that's the No. 1 seed. I think the stars are lined up for us. All we have to do is go out and play and be successful. I like this opportunity and I give [the Bulldogs] a lot of credit. They've earned the right to have the following they have."

"We're trying to build up the basketball program at Florida State," said 7-foot-1 sophomore Solomon Alabi. "We made it to the tournament. It's a good achievement. We want to get a win in this tournament and prove to the nation we have a pretty good program going."

The Seminoles did a decent job of that this year with wins over Marquette, Georgia Tech and Wake Forest. They lead the nation in defensive field goal percentage, allowing foes to shoot just 37.4 percent on the season. But they come into the tournament off an ugly 58-52 loss to North Carolina State in the quarterfinals of the ACC Tournament.

Opponents score just 60.2 points per game against them but they've only broken 70 themselves once in the last eight games.

"Defense is what really gets our team going," said Alabi, whose 74 blocked shots are second-most for a season in school history. "If I block shots, it's really going to help our team."

Sophomore forward Chris Singleton is another huge contributor, as he was named ACC Defensive Player of the Year. Singleton, a high school center who now stretches his 6-foot-9 frame and long wingspan out on the perimeter, ranked first in the ACC in steals (2.3), fifth in blocks (1.7) and 11th in rebounding (7.2).

"We know our offense isn't always going to be there as people have seen," Singleton said. "But I know that every time we step on the court, our defense is going to be there. It's something we take pride in."

"Games like this we need to execute really well," said Gonzaga guard Matt Bouldin, the West Coast Conference Player of the Year. "With teams that get after it defensively, you have to play hard and execute. And definitely run. We need to keep running like we have all season."

Hamilton is particularly proud of the way Singleton has developed into a defensive stalwart.

"He does a very good job of taking away vision because of his long arms," Hamilton said. "He's a good athlete, has good anticipation and a strong, athletic body. And I think that he has innate quickness, a sense of how to anticipate where the ball is going. That gave him the ability to lead the ACC in steals. That's never been done by a guy 6-9."

Despite the shot-blocking presence of Singleton and Alabi, Gonzaga doesn't feel it should alter its offensive approach. The Bulldogs, after all, are averaging 78.6 points and shooting 50.9 percent from the field, sixth in the country.

"We've been pretty darn effective all season on the offensive end," said Gonzaga coach Mark Few. "It might not have been pretty or aesthetically pleasing but at the end of the day, we've been pretty efficient with our numbers. It's going to be hard to consistently generate baskets against this type of defense, as big, long, athletic, physical as they are. I think that's a big key to the game."


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