In their locker room deep inside Orlando’s Amway Center, a majority of Florida State’s players wore matching garnet T-shirts as they cracked jokes and prepared to practice.
Emblazoned on the shirts were two words written in gold: Winner Stays.
“Winning solves everything,” sophomore guard Terrance Mann said.
But winning hasn’t come easy for Florida State as of late.
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Heading into their first NCAA Tournament since 2012, the third-seeded Seminoles had dropped six of their past 13 games after opening the season with an 18-2 record.
They hope to get back to their winning ways on Thursday, when they tip off against No. 14 seed Florida Gulf Coast at 9:10 p.m. in the nightcap of the Orlando site’s first day of NCAA action.
“It’s a long season,” junior Xavier Rathan-Mayes said. “We had our ups and downs. We went through a little tough stretch down there towards the end of the season, but I feel like in the later part of the season we really picked it back up. In this last week of preparation we’ve had, I think we got that mind-set back that we started with.”
Florida State (25-8) will need a strong mind-set in what looks to be an energetic affair against Florida Gulf Coast (26-7), the Atlantic Sun tournament champions and Cinderella team from the 2013 NCAA Tournament. Florida State leads the nation with 171 dunks, while Florida Gulf Coast is not far behind in third with 157.
FGCU comes into the NCAA Tournament winning nine of its past 10 games and has four starters averaging more than 10 points per game.
“We have a tremendous amount of respect for this team,” FSU coach Leonard Hamilton said.
“They’re one of the top teams in America in different areas. We realize they are who they are. They play to their strengths. We play to our strengths. They’ll be familiar with us. We’ll be familiar with them.”
Leading the charge for FSU is guard Dwayne Bacon. The 6-7 sophomore, who many thought would declare for the NBA Draft after his freshman year, paces the Seminoles’ offense, averaging 16.9 points per game and shooting 35 percent from beyond the arc.
Outside of being held scoreless in Florida State’s 80-66 loss to Pittsburgh on Feb. 18, Bacon has scored at least 10 points in every game this season.
“That was a decision he made because he felt that there was some things he wanted to accomplish as a college player, and there were areas of his game that he felt he could get better in,” Hamilton said of Bacon, a finalist for the Naismith, Wooden and Robertson awards.
A deep run in the NCAA Tournament after a shaky end to the regular season will help end the season on a high note.
“I feel like now it’s a new season,” Bacon said. “There’s a lot of teams that we haven’t played. All they have is the film. They haven’t really played against us and how our tempo is and what we can do. They haven’t really seen us in person.”
Florida State and Florida Gulf Coast have played just one time, with FSU winning 58-53 in the 2014 National Invitation Tournament.