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THE PAIN IS STILL FRESH IN TALLAHASSEE. ON MARCH 25, INSIDE San Antonio's cavernous Alamodome, Florida State lost 72--71 in overtime to Virginia Commonwealth in the Sweet 16. VCU would eventually reach the Final Four; the Seminoles went home to contemplate how their usually suffocating defense allowed a game-winning layup with just six seconds standing between FSU and its first Elite Eight appearance since 1993. "You go back and look at the film, and you can't help but be discouraged," coach Leonard Hamilton says. But there is a bright side. "[That loss] has spurred a camaraderie with this team," Hamilton adds. "[I've seen] a different focus since they left San Antonio. I've seen a more mature team, a team that's found common ground in the pain of getting close and coming up short."
Forcing other teams to come up short, of course, has been the Seminoles' signature, and one that will enable them to challenge blue bloods North Carolina and Duke in the ACC. FSU ranked first in the nation in adjusted defensive efficiency (86.2) last year, and—behind elite defenders such as big man Bernard James and swingman Michael Snaer—the D figures to be stingy again. "With defense, we have a sense of pride," says Snaer. "I just don't want anyone to score on me, and the rest of my team is the same way."
The biggest question is how smooth an already middling offense (the team scored more than 70 points in only one of its 11 losses last season) will look without its two top scorers: forward Chris Singleton (13.1 points per game last year) and guard Derwin Kitchen (10.4). The answer depends largely on the 6' 5", 202-pound Snaer, who has averaged 8.8 points in each of his first two seasons. A McDonald's All-American from Rancho Verde (Calif.) High, Snaer is an NBA prospect whose wealth of talent hasn't yet translated into statistical production. "Nobody's really seen what Mike can do," says James. "He hasn't been able to get comfortable and play his game. But his athleticism is crazy."
If Snaer—a notoriously hard worker who spent his off-season honing his midrange jumper—can evolve into the player fans expected when he was recruited, another tournament run is by no means out of the question. This one might even be longer, not to mention less painful.
COACH Leonard Hamilton (10th year) 176--117 (68--76 in ACC)
ASSISTANTS Dennis Gates, Stan Jones, Corey Williams
2010--11 RECORD 23--11 (11--5, T-3 in ACC)
FINAL AP RANK NR