Florida State head coach Leonard Hamilton knows that this week has been a new realm for his players and his program.
The stakes are high. The attention has kicked up dramatically, even into late February, as the Seminoles are ranked No. 15 in the nation, flaunt a 10-2 record in ACC play, are tied atop the conference standings and host a monster showdown with No. 5 Duke at the Donald L. Tucker Center tonight (7 p.m. ET, ESPN).
"When you're a youngster, when you're 6, 7, 8-years old out in the backyard throwing up jumpshots and playing imaginary games with you and the ball and the goal, these are the things you're talking about," Hamilton said. "Being in big games on national TV, you dream of these things as a child growing up."
A dream season is in the works so far for Florida State (19-7, 10-2), and while a Tallahassee visit from the Blue Devils (23-4, 10-2) is traditionally circled on the calender of the upset-minded, this year brings big implications. The Seminoles control their own destiny in the ACC, and with a win, they could bolster their chances to win the regular season crown and bolster their NCAA Tournament stature. Those opportunities are what makes tonight the biggest FSU home game in almost two decades.
"We're on a road to a championship just like they are," said junior Michael Snaer, whose game-winning three-pointer gave Florida State a dramatic 76-73 win at Duke on Jan. 21, which propelled the Seminoles into the ACC driver's seat. "It hypes you up a little bit, but you can't get caught up in it, you've got to stay focused on the task at hand."
Hamilton knows that it isn't easy to keep concentration when it comes to the hype surrounding a stage like this. All 12,100 seats in the Tucker Center have been sold out since Tuesday including the entire student allotment, which was snapped up in 17 minutes. Tonight's tilt has also caught the eye of the national media.
"Because of the success (our team) has had to this point, I'm sure that they're a little more recognizable and people are making a few more comments to them because this is uncharted territory for everybody so it's new and exciting," said Hamilton, whose team has won 10 of its last 11 ACC games entering tonight. "But I do believe out players are keeping things in perspective. We have been fairly focused. This team has really adjusted, at least in our sight. We don't see anything different other than they realize that we can't get caught up too much in the hoopla because it's got to be business as usual."
The task is a big one, of course, as the revenge-minded Blue Devils come to town undefeated on the road (6-0) in ACC play and have won seven of eight since the loss to FSU. Freshman phenom Austin Rivers has led the charge, scoring 15 points a game. He is one of four Blue Devils averaging double figures.
"I think any team when they lose to somebody wants to - there's a little bit more incentive to try to beat the team the next time you play them," Duke head coach Mike Krzyzewski said.
One thing Duke's program brings is experience in crucial spots. High-stakes games with notable conference consequences are nothing new to the Blue Devils.
"They might have a little bit of a mental edge from the standpoint that they've been in these types of games over and over again," Hamilton said. "Because of the success they've had over the last 50, 60, 70 years, the tradition they've been able to build, they've kind of earned the right to be everybody's homecoming."
Florida State's home will certainly be rocking, and a win tonight would mark the first-ever season sweep of the Blue Devils. The Seminoles already beat the four Tobacco Road schools (Duke, UNC, N.C. State and Wake Forest) for the first time in school history.
"We expect them to be an improved basketball team over the last time we played them, and we hope that we've improved," Hamilton said. "I think it has the makings of a pretty good basketball game, but the good thing about it is at 7 o'clock we get to throw it up and see what's going to happen."