TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The sign in the practice gym serves as a constant reminder to the Florida State basketball team. "You're in ACC Country," it reads.
Seminoles coach Pat Kennedy wants his players to see that every day, a not-so-subtle hint about how dramatically life has changed since Florida State joined the Atlantic Coast Conference this season.
"It's going to be a new and incredibly difficult experience," Kennedy said recently. "There's going to be a lot we have to learn, especially with regard to intensity."
The lessons officially will begin today against fifth-ranked North Carolina in Chapel Hill, when the Seminoles (3-1) play their first ACC game.
It is, perhaps, a good place for Florida State to get its big-time basketball baptism. The Smith Center is more a state-of-the-art palace than a raucous pit; the sit-on-their-hands fans of the Tar Heels are rarely unnerving for the opposition.
Though the timing isn't perfect for their indoctrination -- junior forward Douglas Edwards will be sitting out a one-game suspension for his part in a Dec. 7 brawl with Florida A&M -- it is a good season for the Seminoles to come into what might be the best conference in the country. Only top-ranked Duke seems unbeatable, and several teams are rebuilding or hindered by injuries to key players.
Still, Kennedy worries.
"Bobby Bowden has told people, 'I know why I want us to join the ACC, but I don't know why that crazy basketball coach wants to,' " Kennedy said. "But the truth is, this move couldn't be better for me or for Florida State."
For Kennedy, it means the fulfillment of a longtime goal at a relatively young age. He was 28 when he got his first head coaching job, at Iona in 1980, when his boss -- a guy named Jim Valvano -- left for North Carolina State.
Kennedy, 39, came here five years ago, finding a program in disrepair and the fans mostly indifferent. "There was nothing," Kennedy said. "Here's a school that went to the Final Four [in 1972] and there were no banners."
Slowly, things began to change. The Seminoles went 19-11 in each of Kennedy's first two years, reaching the NIT in 1988 and the NCAA Tournament in 1989. Florida State has made the NCAAs three of the past four seasons.
And Kennedy has become a hot coaching commodity. Two years ago, despite the Seminoles' struggling to a 16-15 finish, Tennessee made a strong run to hire Kennedy. Until that day last year when the ACC announced its intention to add Florida State, Kennedy wasn't sure he had made the right choice by staying.
"I was starting to feel like I did by the end at Iona. It was like, 'What more can I do?' " said Kennedy. "But Florida State made a pretty strong commitment to me and my family. There was a lot of enthusiasm about the job we were doing. Now with us going into the ACC, I feel like I'm starting a new job."
But certainly not starting over. While Kennedy's decision to stay at Florida State helped the Seminoles land Edwards, a former Miami high school star, the ACC's decision to invite Florida State has enabled Kennedy to expand his recruiting horizons.
On a roster once entirely made up of Floridians, there is now Sam Cassell. The former Dunbar High star, who played two years ago at Maine Central Institute and last season at San Jacinto (Texas) Junior College, announced the day after Florida State joined the league that he was headed here.
"It's always been a dream for me to be a part of the ACC," said Cassell, a 6-foot-3 point guard.
How well Florida State fares in the ACC will depend largely on how well Cassell adjusts to the better competition, and on how the Seminoles, who won only two games on the road in the Metro Conference last season, adjust to playing away from home. Except for Freedom Hall in Louisville, there is nothing comparable to playing in places such as Duke's Cameron Indoor Stadium or North Carolina State's Reynolds Coliseum. Or even Maryland's Cole Field House.
"It's not like they're going to take their licks for a few years," said Virginia coach Jeff Jones.
"They only won once in the Metro, so you don't figure they're going to be winning the ACC a lot," Louisville coach Denny Crum said. "But Pat has done a great job there, and he's getting better players every year, so you know they'll be pretty good."
Kennedy has done his part easing the transition for Cassell, handing him the starting point guard job from the first day at practice. Though Edwards, a 6-9 junior forward, is probably the team's most talented player, Cassell is the guy who's going to have to get him and others the ball.
Today, Cassell will certainly have to play an even more significant role against the Tar Heels. Going into his first ACC season, Cassell is not short on confidence.
"Mainly, I don't feel the pressure," said Cassell. "I don't think it's going to be that hard. I'm not going to force the issue. I'm not going out there with the idea of making big plays. I'm going to let it come to me."