It's been a long nonconference season for Florida State.
The Seminoles have travelled to Puerto Rico and several times come heartbreakingly close to vaulting into the national conversation, only to end up just on the fringes every time.
A big early season win against then-No. 10 VCU was followed by a late-game collapse in a loss to Michigan. An upset bid at Florida faded when Ian Miller's late-game heave went off the back iron.
So FSU's win against No. 22 UMass carried some extra weight and was a much-needed boost for the still-young Seminoles. With that win, FSU toppled the No. 2 team in RPI rankings and handed the Minutemen their first loss of the season.
FSU has consistently received a smattering of votes in the AP and coaches polls in recent weeks, and even that much is a far cry from FSU's non-conference season in recent years. By this point in the season last year, Florida State had losses already to South Alabama and Mercer. The tougher early season schedule has paid dividends for FSU already, players said.
"In the past year we lost to teams we weren't supposed to," Okaro White said. "This year kind of feels different you kind of feel a little good about it going into conference play. Our conference is tough so you want to get off to a good start."
The win against UMass was important, but Aaron Thomas said playing Florida down to the wire in a close loss was a turning point for Florida State as well.
"The tough loss against Florida, pretty much after that game we felt like we could play against anybody. Florida is a good team; they're going to the tournament. So we just tried to build off that."
The game at Florida built confidence, but the win against UMass solidified it for Florida State's seven second-year players who are still learning how to win in the ACC. Leonard Hamilton agreed.
"I think we've made progress," Hamilton said, "But I don't think we're anywhere close to reaching our potential."
Florida State has reached a new level of respect at least in the national rankings. The Seminoles are currently ranked No. 29 in the RPI and have beaten the No. 2 RPI team in UMass. Compare that to last season when FSU didn't even finish in the top 50 of the RPI. Playing four ranked teams has given Florida State a solid non-conference resume. But Hamilton was careful to say there's still plenty of room to grow.
"We totally realize that the cake it still in the oven," Hamilton said. "It's not time to take it out. You don't take a cake out and taste it when it's half done. You want it to rise and get brown. Right now we're not there yet. We're not even thought about trying to judge where we are."
One thing FSU can point to as a microcosm of its progression heading into ACC play - the Seminoles play College of Charleston next week before opening with Virginia on Jan. 4 - is the continued emergence of sophomore Thomas. Thomas forms half of FSU's bench scoring duo with Ian Miller and Thomas has taken his game to a new level in December.
Against Jacksonville State, Charlotte and UMass, Thomas has averaged 18.7 points per game and is shooting 56.3 percent from the floor. He's even expanded his game to beyond the arc in that span, shooting 50 percent (4-8) from three-point range as well. And Thomas said he feels good about where FSU seems to be headed.
"We had to make a lot of changes," Thomas said. "We bought in all as one so now coming in to this season we've got confidence, trying to make up for the tough losses earlier in the year."
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