Sometimes, when he joins his coaches to scrutinize game film, Florida State senior Bernard James will squint at his image on the screen. The key to this football school's basketball renaissance has been a relentless, primarily man-to-man defense that was the country's most efficient in both 2009--10 (84.5 points allowed per 100 possessions) and '10--11 (86.2). But the level of precision needed for the No. 15 Seminoles' scheme can elude even James, the 6'10" forward and team elder, who recently turned 27. Coach Leonard Hamilton is fond of wielding a laser pointer at a spot on the screen and informing players, You should've been standing here. "And you're like, Coach, that is where I'm standing," says James, a former staff sergeant in the U.S. Air Force. "But then [the coaches] point to one inch over. They don't settle for anything less."
In a league that remains up for grabs, Hamilton has used this obsessive attention to detail to steer FSU (19--7, 10--2 ACC) into a three-way tie with Tobacco Road's blue bloods, No. 5 Duke and No. 7 North Carolina, for first place in the conference at week's end. The Seminoles' D has been as stingy as ever—FSU ranks sixth nationally in defensive efficiency (85.5) and has the conference's best defensive turnover percentage (24.2%)—but the key to the Seminoles' surge is that a formerly mediocre offense has shifted into a new gear. "We needed time to work out the kinks," says Hamilton, who has seen six players lead the team in scoring. "We're a team that has to win by committee."
The Seminoles will need to make every possession count as the cramped ACC race heads into the final two weeks. The red-hot Blue Devils boast the most efficient offense in the conference (119.4) while the Tar Heels have more NBA talent than any team in the league.
FSU routed the then No. 3 Tar Heels 90--57 in Tallahassee on Jan. 14. (With 14.2 seconds left Carolina coach Roy Williams sent in his walk-ons and ushered the rest of his players to the locker room so they could avoid the inevitable court storming.) One week later the visiting Seminoles dealt then No. 4 Duke a 76--73 loss on a buzzer-beating three from swingman Michael Snaer. The junior hit another buzzer beater to give FSU a 48--47 win over Virginia Tech last week. A rematch with the Blue Devils looms on Thursday.
Of course no one has any illusions about what will ultimately help FSU get to the Sweet 16 for the second straight year. Hamilton reinstituted several days of what James (who averages 2.3 blocks per game) calls a "defensive mini-camp." Even though the team was rolling through the ACC, "we had relaxed a little bit," admits James. "We had to get that spark back." Inch by precious inch.