NOTE: This article originally appeared on The Daily Nole on April 2, 2016
As most Florida State basketball fans are well aware, the Seminoles fell short of reaching the NCAA Tournament for a fourth straight season. This season’s FSU senior class had the misfortune of never taking part in the big dance.
The class that left prior to their arrival however, did something no other Florida State class had ever done — reached the tournament four years in a row. It began with an improbable run during the 2008-09 season and culminated with the first ACC championship in school-history.
“Our expectations were high from the day we stepped foot on campus,” said former guard Luke Loucks. “We knew that our recruiting class was a special one in 2008. We were a group that was confident in our abilities and a group that enjoyed working on our craft as basketball players. We all knew our roles and having Toney Douglas lead the team helped us be comfortable in learning behind someone with NBA talent.”
Loucks was one of six players that made up the 2008 class. Loucks was joined by sharp-shooting Lithuanian guard Deividas Dulkys, junior college transfer Derwin Kitchen, McDonald’s All-American Chris Singleton, guard Pierre Jordan, and a 6-11 forward with range in Xavier Gibson.
“Before signing, some of us recruits messaged each other and said we wanted to make history at FSU,” said Dulkys. “We had some great pieces and we knew if we all committed that we could not only make it to the NCAA Tournament but also do something that’s never been done before and win the ACC Tournament. We had high expectations.”
Entering the 2008-09 season, FSU had not reached the NCAA Tournament in more than a decade. Under head coach Leonard Hamilton, the Seminoles would routinely find themselves on the very cusp of the tournament, but couldn’t seem to break through.
“We knew that it was a great accomplishment making the tournament four years in a row, especially in a town dominated by football and rightfully so,” Loucks said. “I know many really talented players and teams around the country that never had the opportunity to play in the big dance. More importantly, our group of guys really wanted to change the culture of FSU basketball. Coach Hamilton and his staff brought all of us together and gave us the opportunity to do something special. We embraced the grind and difficult work that needed to be done every day to put us in the position to beat the best programs in our conference and around the nation.”
Led by Douglas, an All-ACC guard, and a deep frontcourt, FSU cruised to a 13-2 record in the non-conference. After a 4-3 start in ACC play, the Seminoles finally got their signature win on Feb. 7, 2009 against No. 10 Clemson. Led by 23 points from Douglas and 17 from Solomon Alabi, FSU erased a 19-point second half deficit in a stunning 65-61 victory.
Florida State went on to finish the regular season 23-8 and 10-6 in ACC play to earn a No. 5 seed in the ACC Tournament. After a 3-point play from Kitchen lifted FSU past 12th-seeded Georgia Tech, the Seminoles stunned No. 1 North Carolina in the tournament semifinals to reach the ACC final. Unfortunately, FSU was defeated by Duke, 79-69, but it had done enough to earn its first NCAA Tournament appearance in 11 years.
Florida State was awarded a No. 5 seed in the tournament and was matched up with No. 12 Wisconsin. FSU enjoyed a 31-19 halftime lead, but the Badgers fought back to force overtime. In the waning seconds of the extra period, a 3-point play from Trevon Hughes put Wisconsin ahead for good in a 61-59 victory.
Douglas would go on to be selected in the first round of the 2009 NBA Draft, but the following season, FSU brought in McDonald’s All-American Michael Snaer while other Seminoles stepped up. Alabi led the team in scoring and blocks while Singleton emerged as one of the premier defenders in the country. Dulkys led the team with 71 3-point makes while Loucks was second only to Kitchen in assists during the 2009-10 campaign.
Florida State finished with 10 wins in the ACC for a second straight season, but its stay in the NCAA Tournament would again be a short one as the Seminoles were knocked off in the first round by No. 8 seed Gonzaga, 67-60.
After an outstanding sophomore season, Alabi left early for the NBA, but the Seminoles brought in a solid recruiting class in Ian Miller, Okaro White and a little-known junior college transfer and former Air Force Sargent, Bernard James.
“In 2011, I think every guy on our team would tell you that we were talented enough to go to the Final Four,” Loucks said. “We all believed it. Honestly, we believed it every year and thatâ€™s why it was so disappointing to lose early in the tournament and really drove us to work the long overtime hours in the summer to improve.”
Led by Singleton and Kitchen, FSU reached the NCAA Tournament for a third straight season. After losing three of their final five however, the Seminoles were the No. 10 seed for the round of 64 as they took on Texas A&M. Behind 15 points and 7 rebounds from Kitchen, FSU overcame a halftime deficit and advanced to the round of 32 with a 57-50 win.
Florida State was a big underdog as it took on No. 2 seed Notre Dame, but dominated from the start. Bernard James finished with 14 points, 10 rebounds and 3 blocks to lead FSU as four players scored in double-figures. FSU led by as many as 23 before cruising to a 71-57 win.
Despite advancing to the Sweet 16 for the first time in 18 years, the title of Cinderella belonged to Virginia Commonwealth. Matched up with VCU, FSU trailed by nine with under eight minutes to go, but forced overtime on a trey by Singleton. The Seminoles led 71-70 with seconds to play, but VCU’s Bradford Burgess got to the basket for the game-winner with seven seconds remaining.
“2011 was the first feeling of real success in the postseason as we upset Texas A&M and Notre Dame before losing the heartbreaker to VCU,” Loucks said. “It was definitely satisfying to prove our worth on a national level.”
Loucks, Dulkys and Gibson had to say goodbye to three of their recruiting classmates prior to the 2011-12 season. Singleton left early for the NBA, Kitchen graduated and Jordan transferred. But with JUCO transfers James and Jon Kreft on the roster as well as Iowa transfer Jeff Peterson, the Seminoles began the season with six scholarship seniors.
“With six seniors on the roster, we knew this was our time to shine,” said Dulkys. “Every game brought us something different.”
The beginning part of the season however, did not go as planned. FSU finished the non-conference with a record of 9-5, which included losses to Harvard and Princeton. Things looked bleak after losing the ACC opener to Clemson as FSU fell to 9-6.
“Even when we were 9-5 and the season looked doomed, we still believed that our team was good enough to make a run,” Loucks said. “We had really high-character guys on that team and a good mix of gritty players, athleticism, and our competitiveness was great. We literally hated to lose. Between myself, (James), Dulkys, and Snaer, we wouldnâ€™t really let anyone slack off or get out of line even when things got a little ugly early on.”
FSU responded with a win at Virginia Tech and then a 90-57 blowout of No. 3 North Carolina, which seemed to serve as a turning point. Dulkys paced the Seminoles in the upset as he scored a career-high 32 points on 12-for-14 shooting, including 8-for-10 from deep.
“I think the breaking point was the game versus Virginia Tech earlier that week,” Dulkys said. “We came together during that road win versus a really good team. For some reason, I’ve always played well against North Carolina and that day our whole team played so well. Our offense finally clicked but it was really our defense and being able to hold them to 57 points, with all of their NBA talent that really won us the game. That win gave us a much-needed confidence boost to build on and be able to compete at our potential.”
After an 84-70 home victory over Maryland, Florida State invaded Cameron Indoor Stadium to face a No. 4 Duke team who was riding a 45-game home winning streak. The Blue Devils led 32-26 at halftime and by eight midway through the second half, but the Seminoles would not go away.
“That Duke game is one of my favorite memories from my time at Florida State,” Loucks said. “It was such an intense game and we knew it was going to come down to the last few possessions.”
Snaer gave Florida State a 71-70 lead on a pull-up jumper with under a minute to play. Austin Rivers tied the game at 73 for Duke with 4.9 seconds to play when Loucks started to push the basketball down the court. Loucks was able to draw the defense in before finding Snaer in the right corner for the game-winning 3-pointer as time expired. FSU won 76-73, ending the Blue Devils’ streak.
“Bernard James set a beautiful screen before half court and I originally planned to drive as far as I could to the basket and maybe attempt a close shot or try to draw a foul,” Loucks said. “Right as I passed (James) I noticed Andre Dawkins for Duke turn his head towards me and take a few steps my way to help the defense. This left Snaer wide open on the right wing and it really was a fairly instinctual decision to pass to the open man for a good shot. Michael was a great shooter and when it was crunch time, he had tremendous focus to be ready to shoot the tough shots.”
FSU would go on to twice beat a ranked Virginia team before finishing the regular season 12-4 in ACC play. After beating Miami in the ACC quarterfinals, the Seminoles again beat Duke 62-59 as the Blue Devils’ Seth Curry’s half-court heave at the buzzer rimmed out. For a second time in four years, the Seminoles were one win away from claiming their first ACC championship.
Against North Carolina, the Seminoles shot 11-for-22 from beyond the arc and used 18 points from Snaer to jump out to a big lead, but the Tar Heels drew to within one at 83-82 with 30 seconds to play. North Carolina’s Kendall Marshall missed a chance to put the Tar Heels ahead with five seconds remaining and after a pair of free throws from Dulkys, P.J. Hairston’s 3-point attempt to force overtime went awry, giving FSU its first ever ACC title.
FSU was given a No. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament, but after beating St. Bonaventure in the round of 64, the Seminoles were upset by No. 6 seed Cincinnati, 62-56. Still, for the three seniors who played four years at FSU, they had done something no other class had.
“It definitely feels like more of a feat now than when it was happening,” Dulkys said. “We had such high hopes that I don’t think any of us were surprised to keep making the tournament. It’s definitely discouraging to see this team never make the tournament since we left but I think we have such a young and talented team now that they’ll definitely get back on that track. ”
Loucks said he’s also optimistic about the future of the program.
“I know that expectations were high this year and although a few players had good seasons statistically, the team fell a little short of their goals,” he said. “I think the coaching staff has brought in a great group of guys for this next season. The talent will be there. If these young men buy into the system, embrace the grind of constant improvement, and have a good amount of competitive spirit, they will get the train back on the tracks and hopefully surpass any amount of success we had between 2008-2012.”