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Clark: ACC title eludes FSU, but now it's time for the big tournament

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. -- One thing was clear to Leonard Hamilton after Saturday night's 73-63 loss to Duke in the championship game of the ACC Tournament: The Blue Devils are the most talented team in the country.

Hamilton's Florida State team guarded as hard as it could, and his team is good at guarding. And yet there were moments -- lots of them, actually -- when it just didn't matter.

Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett can't be stopped by college kids. Period.

And when Tre Jones plays like he did on Saturday night, well, the Blue Devils are going to be just about impossible to beat.

Hamilton said afterward he wouldn't be surprised if the Blue Devils were cutting down the nets after the national championship game in early April. And he said he has never, ever had to coach against someone like Williamson. He said he's not sure he's ever seen anything like him on a basketball court.

Still. Think about this: Despite not being able to buy a shot in the second half -- open jumper, layup, tip-in, it didn't matter -- the Seminoles were down by only five points in the final minutes. Multiple times. In what was essentially a road game. Against a team with four first-round picks, including probably the first two in the draft.

That's something, too.

"It just shows how good we are," said junior guard Trent Forrest. "I mean, we played the No. 1 and No. 2 teams (in the country) back to back, and we were right there with them the whole game. I mean, going into the (NCAA) Tournament, we should definitely have a high seed.

"And there's really no reason to hold our head, because we have a good team."

He then said it again to emphasize it: "A good team."

And he's not wrong.

It was a frustrating championship game, no doubt. The Seminoles shot just 31.7 percent from the floor and were only 8 of 32 in the second half. And the Blue Devils started out the second half by hitting their first 10 shots from two-point range, turning a three-point deficit into a 14-point lead.

But here's the part that needs to be remembered.

It's unlikely Florida State will face a challenge like this the rest of the year. They had to play a squad with more lottery picks on it than most NBA teams, and they had to play them in what amounted to their home building. On zero days of rest.

That's a daunting task.

And yes, the Blue Devils were playing the Seminoles on zero days of rest, too, after an emotional win over North Carolina the night before. But did we mention that they have lottery picks? Lots of them?

The Blue Devils also had an enormous home-crowd advantage. And those two factors seemed to be too much to overcome for a Florida State team that -- even with all its depth -- seemed to run out of gas in the final few minutes.

The good news is this, though: The Seminoles now will get a few days to fill their tanks back up. And they won't have to play the likes of Virginia and Duke (in front of 15,000 of its own fans) in back-to-back games any time soon.

While they didn't walk out of the Spectrum Center with the school's second ACC championship, they proved to me, they proved to you, and I think they proved to themselves that they have a real shot to make serious noise in the next couple of weeks.

The guy on the other sideline certainly thinks so.

"I expect them to be a very high seed," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "Leonard and I are really good friends, you know. Like he has a program there -- he doesn't have a team. It's built on great kids, a lot of kids, and playing good defense. And a lot of tall kids. But they accept their roles, and they play so hard. And because they can really play defense, they will have a shot at anybody, and we had a very difficult time winning tonight. I think they're really good. ...

"There are a number of guys who are deserving of Coach of the Year, and I'm not knocking Tony [Bennett], because his team's so good, but you know what Leonard did was being 1-4, and what are they, 27-7? You've got to be kidding me. I mean to keep his team together and go through the ACC, finish fourth, outstanding. Outstanding job."

And he's not done.

That's the thing. As cool as it would have been to win on Saturday night, as disappointed as he and his team were after the game, there are bigger goals out there.

Hamilton has won an ACC Championship before. He hasn't been a to a Final Four.

Now, it won't be easy to get there, obviously. It won't be easy to even get past the first weekend, no matter what they're seeded.

But they just beat Virginia Tech and Virginia on back-to-back nights and then lost to Duke in a road game that came down to the final minutes.

This team can still make history. That's what I gleaned from this week in Charlotte.

If Florida State can play like that on three straight nights, against those teams, then Florida State can play with anybody. And it could be a really fun next few weeks.

Not that it makes Hamilton feel any better about how Saturday night ended.

"I don't want to get caught up in being excited about losses," he said. "We didn't play well enough to beat a very good team in the finals of the championship tournament. That's what I take away from it. Now, what we want to do is go back and evaluate it for what it was, evaluate our shortcomings, see how we can improve on them and regroup. And try to prepare ourselves to get ready to participate in the NCAA Tournament."

He then added with a smile: "One thing I feel good about: We're not on the bubble. We know we're going to be participating somewhere. That does give you a pretty good feeling."

And who knows? It could be an even better feeling in a couple of weeks.

Contact senior writer Corey Clark at corey@warchant.com and follow @Corey_Clark on Twitter.

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