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CHICAGO - They learned in 2009 what it's like to be just happy to make the field.
And they found out in 2010 what it's like to show up flat and unprepared in a disappointing defeat.
The Florida State men's basketball team has no interest in experiencing any of those feelings again this year. Instead, the Seminoles (21-10) are here in Chicago looking to experience something altogether new and different: they yearn to know what it's like to win a game in the NCAA Tournament, a feat they can accomplish tomorrow at 4:10 eastern time inside the United Center. Should the tenth-seeded Seminoles top No. 7 Texas A&M (24-8), it will not only be the first tournament win for everyone on the FSU roster, it will also be the program's first win in the tournament since 1998.
"Our core group of guys came in with one mission: to change the culture around here and get this program back on the right track," said guard Luke Loucks, who will make his third tournament appearance tomorrow afternoon. "I think we've done a pretty good job of that so far, but we're going to have to take the next step and we're going to do our best to win the game (Friday) night. It would certainly help to move the program forward."
Several Seminoles have noted a "business-like" approach to this trip, a product of their previous experience - and disappointment - in the NCAA Tournament. FSU practiced yesterday at nearby Moody Bible College and had what many considered to be among the sharpest, most intense practices of the season.
"It's probably one of the best practices we've had all year, as far as focus," said junior Bernard James. "Nobody really made any mental errors. Everybody was firing on all cylinders. I can tell that we're ready to play and everybody else is as excited as I am."
His head coach, Leonard Hamilton, agreed.
"I really like the focus of our players," he said. "I think we've had kind of a workman, serious approach … I think, right now, we're more focused on being sure we're as prepared as possible, making sure we understand our game plan. We've had less miscues, bad execution in the last couple days. I feel like, mentally and emotionally, we're in a good place."
Of course, the Seminoles are still plenty thrilled to experience one of the biggest cities in the country, and to play in the United Center, an arena made famous by the likes of Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, and affectionately referred to by locals as the "Madhouse on Madison."
"Obviously it's a very basketball rich, historical place," Loucks said. "It's like Madison Square Garden, you grow up as a kid wanting to play in a place like this. But in the end, it's an NCAA game, it doesn't matter if you're in the YMCA or the Chicago Bulls' arena. We came here to do one thing, and we're going to go give it our best."
Singleton's status still uncertain
Forward Chris Singleton, who hasn't played since breaking his foot in a Feb. 12 victory over Virginia, participated in FSU's open practice without any kind of protective gear on his foot, but his status for tomorrow's game still has yet to be decided.
Singleton has been participating in drills with the team and has apparently doubled his rehab efforts.
"We'll make a determination (Friday)," Hamilton said. "I don't feel one way or the other. I think there's a lot of thought that goes into this where he is. And most importantly, we're concerned about him and his rehab and exactly where we are in relation to what level of contribution he's able to make."
Texas A&M coach Mark Turgeon said that the Aggies are prepared whether or not Singleton plays.
"If Singleton's in the game, score's tied with a minute to go, you know where the ball's going," he said. "Now, it's probably standing in the guard's hands without him, so that's the difference … He's a heck of a player. For him, I hope he plays. Kids work their whole life to be part of a game like this."
Reunion for Dulkys
Guard Deividas Dulkys watched the tournament selection show Sunday with an extra sharp eye. And when Florida State's name popped up next to "Chicago," the Lithuania native had reason to smile: his aunt and cousins live in the north Chicago suburbs and will be in attendance at Friday's game.
Dulkys has played just once in front of these relatives - a 73-59 loss at Northwestern during his freshman season of 2008 ("That wasn't a great one. I'm trying to make it up," he said).
"You want to perform well in front of them, but you want to perform well period," Dulkys said.
Old friend for Singleton
Singleton will see a familiar face across the court Friday afternoon - he and Texas A&M guard Dash Harris competed in high school, participated in All-Star games together, and, according to Harris, are still close.
"We keep in touch often," Harris said. "I played him one time in high school and I beat him in that little matchup. So I'm looking to go 2-0, hopefully."
Harris also claimed to know the answer the million-dollar question - will Singleton play Friday? - but laughed when pressed for an answer.
"He told me," Harris said. "But if he didn't tell you, I don't think I should tell you either."
FSU memories from TAMU coach
Turgeon has seen Florida State and Leonard Hamilton once before - as the head coach at Wichita State. That game, a 76-65 FSU win at WSU in the 2004 postseason NIT, still sticks out vividly in Turgeon's mind.
"Up until about the two-minute mark, it was a heck of a game. We were up 10 or 12 most of the second half playing our tails off. And Von Wafer hit unbelievable threes with guys draped on him, and they whipped us pretty good in overtime.
Turgeon said that game featured "the most electric building I've ever seen in my life."