Florida State seeks NIT title to help kick-start next season

Sophomore guard Aaron Thomas has excelled in the NIT so far. He scored 22 points vs. Florida Gulf Coast, 26 against Georgetown and 21 vs. Louisiana Tech.

John David Mercer/John David Mercer-USA TODAY Spor

TALLAHASSEE, Fla. — Success in the NIT isn’t exactly something that you put on your resume.

Not making the NCAA tournament, but then piecing together a winning streak in the NIT, is a small consolation to a basketball team’s season. Florida State players would probably trade their NIT success for a spot in the Big Dance, even if they were given a No. 15 or 16 seed.

Florida State will play in the NIT’s final four after winning its third straight game, defeating Louisiana Tech 78-75 on Wednesday night. The Seminoles will face Minnesota in one semifinal, while Clemson will play SMU in the other.

Perhaps there’s irony in the fact those games will take place on April Fool’s Day. But it’s not a joke.

What value does the NIT have? For Florida State, it could be significant in the long haul.

"Having the opportunity to go to New York and compete for a national title — we might be one of the very few teams on campus that has not won a national title," Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said. "Having an opportunity to compete in the NIT (semifinals) is a tremendous opportunity for our guys."

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It would be a national title by definition, yes. But that trophy or banner would not come close to equaling the program’s recent achievements like the Sweet 16 in 2011 or the ACC tournament title in 2012.

The value of the NIT is in the experience it provides for next season. Florida State is a sophomore-driven team, a group that is led by a rising star in Aaron Thomas. The guard has put together three of his best games, scoring 22 points vs. Florida Gulf Coast, 26 against Georgetown and then 21 vs. La. Tech.

Point guard Devon Bookert fell short of the high expectations that were set after a breakout freshman season. Bookert struggled to make shots and often ended games with more turnovers than assists. But then he had 21 points and 9 assists against Georgetown and 11 points and 5 assists vs. Louisiana Tech.

Boris Bojanovsky had just 4 points against the Bulldogs but added 6 rebounds and 2 blocks. The center is clearly playing with more intensity on the defensive end, increasing his rebound totals and redirecting shots.

With seniors such as Okaro White and Ian Miller down to their last game or two, the NIT has at least offered a chance for the sophomores to continue to learn and make progress for the future.

"Our guys are still young, still growing," Hamilton said.

Florida State squandered plenty of chances to win 20 or 21 regular-season games and have a spot in the NCAA tournament. On Selection Sunday, the Seminoles didn’t hear their name called. And 19 wins just didn’t measure up as the Selection Committee evaluated the merits of teams. Other teams were more deserving.

Players instead rallied around the concept of making the best out of the NIT.

"Even though we didn’t make the NCAA, we wanted to come into the NIT and still play with that toughness and try to win it," Thomas said.

Florida State has that chance next week in New York. But if they learn from this NIT experience now, there’s a good chance it could make them better next season — and help them find success in March in the NCAA tournament.

You can follow Bob Ferrante on Twitter @bobferrante or email him at bobferrante17@gmail.com.