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January 9, 2009

A major test for a young team

Leonard Hamilton loves to say that there are no easy nights in the Atlantic Coast Conference. His point will be proven from the get-go this year as Florida State opens its league schedule Saturday at home against No. 2 Duke.

"It is probably good for our team to be playing a team right off the bat of this caliber," Hamilton said. "We had a chance to play against a very good Pittsburgh team that is ranked No. 1 now, so we have a little bit of an idea of what it is like for our youngsters to play at this level, however, I think it is going to be kicked up a notch or two."

The Seminoles are 3-5 against the Blue Devils under Hamilton, with their last win coming at home in Feb. 2007.

A fourth victory will require getting past a Duke squad that is deep and versatile, even by its lofty standards. Sophomore forward Kyle Singler (16.9 ppg, 7.7 rpg) is one of four double-figure scorers.

Despite an all-star cast under Hall of Fame coach Mike Krzyzewski's direction, Hamilton respects the Blue Devils because, "they are always consistent with their effort, their execution, their defensive and mental approach to the game."

"They don't beat themselves," said Hamilton.

Duke's 13-1 record - its lone loss came at Michigan - speaks for itself.

The Blue Devils certainly don't need additional help from Hamilton's potentially excitable, young squad.

"Duke represents a position in college basketball that most of us are trying to get to," Hamilton said. "You have to be careful to not mentally and emotionally load up on one particular team because every game you play takes on that same flavor from our standpoint."

The Seminoles' have spent much of the week preparing as much mentally as physically for the game. Seniors Toney Douglas, Uche Echefu and Brian Hoff spoke to their teammates - seven of whom are preparing for their first ACC season - about what to expect.

"Coach had the seniors talk to us about that," freshman point guard Luke Loucks said. "He kind of said it is a new animal and that you can't let that get to you."

According to Douglas, the Seminoles' leading scorer (18.4 ppg), the message was simple.

"Regardless of who we are playing, every possession is going to count and be very important," Douglas said. "Everything is going to be real important."

Naturally, there is some anxiety in anticipation of playing in front of a packed house and a national television audience (ESPN, 2 p.m.) against a coaching legend and a premier program.

"Supposedly it is crazy," FSU freshman forward Chris Singleton said. "It will be the most intense game we have had yet. You just have to learn fast."

The Seminoles (13-2) escaped the out-of-conference schedule relatively unscathed, despite learning on fly. They must further accelerate their growth against the Blue Devils.

"Our concern is that we are in the maturation stage and they are a well- oiled machine," Hamilton said. "The important thing for us is to accept who we are and utilize what we have to the best of our abilities to put ourselves in the best position to win games. That is who we are, regardless of who we are playing."

The good news is that his players are both excited and focused on the challenge at hand.

"I think everyone on the team is pretty excited to come across an opportunity like this," Loucks said. "Not only is it the beginning of our ACC season but it is against a program as storied as Duke. It is a great opportunity for our team to show what we are made of."

While seven players will be squaring off against Duke for the first time in their career, it will ultimately be how their senior leader, Douglas, helps them through this challenge.

"It is like how I treat all of the other ones that we have already played. It is the next big one. Every game is big to me," Douglas said before a recent practice. "You can't be too amped for a game but you can't be too cool. You have to be steady but you can still be ready to go hard."


Talk about it on the Tribal Council or the Hoops Message Board.



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