May 24, 2005
TALLAHASSEE - It's only on the rarest of occasions that the Florida State basketball program can claim bragging rights over any member of the Big Four, let alone twice in a 48-hour period.
Yet that's exactly what coach Leonard Hamilton managed to pull off when he lured 6-8 senior forward Uche Echefu to Tallahassee, despite a desperate late effort by North Carolina coach Roy Williams.
Then, virtually out of the blue, Hamilton snared one-time N.C. State commitment Aaron Holmes from St. Petersburg Catholic. The talented shooting guard joined a fellow Floridian, Parkland Douglass seven-footer John Kreft, as part of the 2006 class.
To characterize this as a stretch of good fortune for the Seminoles would be a gross understatement. The additions of Echefu and junior college shooting guard Jerel Allen rounded out a 2005 class that - on paper - met virtually every need. Echefu should give FSU an athletic interior presence, while Allen is expected to fill the void created by the inevitable departure of sophomore wing guard Von Wafer.
With their two fall signees (forwards Casaan Breeden and Ryan Reid) also in tow, the Seminoles should have solid depth at four of five positions.
Hamilton will work with senior Todd Galloway and sophomores Ralph Mims and Isaiah Swann as point guards by committee this season, but the coach clearly wants to sign one of the marquee floor leaders available in the 2006 class.
While the Seminoles were below .500 on the court in Hamilton's first three seasons, there is little doubt that the coach is batting a higher percentage in those cases where he's been able to get FSU onto a top target's short list.
Beating out the defending national champions for Echefu was no small feat, especially with venerable Montrose coach Stu Vetter reportedly pushing his big man toward Chapel Hill. Previously, Vetter sent his former players Jason Capel, Serge Zwikker, George Lynch and Mike Pepper to UNC, plus many others to other ACC programs.
With assistant Stan Jones serving as the regular point main in Echefu's recruitment, FSU won out largely because Hamilton made his interest clear when the Nigerian was just a sophomore. Ironically, they spotted him for the first time while recruiting former Montrose star Linas Kleiza, who eventually signed with Missouri.
"Uche chose Florida State because of the relationship he has developed with Coach Hamilton and his staff during the last three years," Vetter said. "His family is in Nigeria, and the relationship he has with the coaching staff is very important to him."
Unlike American-born prospects, international players often are less enamored with the more glamorous programs than they are with the people who recruit them. That certainly played a part in Echefu's decision, though cynics might suggest there were other aspects at work in his recruitment. After all, it's not often that a player would pass on UNC, Kentucky, Maryland, Duke and Michigan - all of whom recruited Echefu - to sign with a program that hasn't been to the NCAA Tournament since 1998.
"I think the most important factor is the relationship with the coach (Hamilton)," Echefu said. "I think I have a good relationship with him and the staff. They've been with me for a long time, like from the beginning. That was the most basic thing. ... I think it's the right place for me."
Beyond Echefu's athleticism and considerable upside - he's been playing the game for only four years - Hamilton was impressed with the total package he's getting.
"He's an even more exceptional person, and was named the Christian athlete of the year at Montrose, in addition to performing extremely well in the classroom," Hamilton said. "Uche is a winner, and we feel very fortunate to have him as part of our program."
There was more to Hamilton's praise of Echefu off the floor than mere coachspeak. Character was a common thread among the players he either signed or received commitments from during the 2004-05 school year. Beyond physical skills - all five prep players were ranked among the nation's top 100 prospects in their respective classes by at least one major recruiting service - each of them has an impeccable reputation off the floor.
That's not mere coincidence. In his first two seasons, Hamilton was forced to take some flyers on talented players who were toting baggage and/or lacking in some character areas. It was the kind of compromise he felt he had to make in order to get the program up and running quickly.
Tim Pickett and Nate Johnson proved to be quality players and leaders, and by all accounts, so are rising sophomores Jason Rich, Swann and Mims. Several others, however, proved detrimental to team chemistry, and not surprisingly most won't be completing their careers at FSU.
In addition to Wafer, who declared himself eligible for the NBA draft and reportedly signed with an agent, FSU bid farewell to Benson Callier (Western Kentucky). Furthermore, rising junior center Alexander Johnson has spoken to the staff about the possibility of transferring to Cincinnati, though program sources declined to confirm that conversation.
As is Hamilton's practice, he will not publicly deride players. That's one reason why both Wafer and Johnson stayed in school throughout the end of the school year, and in Johnson's case was enrolled in summer session. Should Johnson depart - that's no better than a 50-50 proposition at this point - the news will be softened by the fact that both he and Wafer are expected to leave in good academic standing. That would minimize the impact on the program's academic numbers, in light of the NCAA's new APR rules.
In this day and age, when disgruntled players up and leave on a whim with little regard for the schools they are departing, Hamilton somehow has managed to allow all parties to save face.
Major Concern: Defensive Tackle
Florida State's linebacker corps is being widely touted as the best in the nation. That's justifiable, given the exploits of Ernie Sims, A.J. Nicholson, Buster Davis and Sam McGrew.
Unfortunately, they may have to be even better than advertised, if there isn't a dramatic turnaround involving the Seminoles' defensive front, particularly the interior line.
What once looked to be a potential team strength, with junior Clifton Dickson and senior Brodrick Bunkley anchoring the middle, could prove to be a void too large to fill if the Seminoles want to make a run at the 2005 ACC title.
After a dominating spring performance, Dickson was ruled academically ineligible at the end of the semester. He later transferred to Tallahassee Community College, where he must complete his two-year degree requirements this summer in order to be eligible for FSU by the start of August camp.
One FSU official recently characterized Dickson's chances as "slim and none," and there is nothing slim about the 300-pounder from Miami, who was expected to step in immediately for graduated NFL first-rounder Travis Johnson.
Bunkley also has been plagued with academic issues throughout his career. He too is back in summer school, fighting to maintain his eligibility. Even if he does take care of his academic business, Bunkley is coming off a poor season, plagued by ankle problems that required postseason surgery. The truth is, he hasn't played every game in a season since his freshman year.
With the post-bowl dismissal of Chris Bradwell, who was charged with possession of marijuana and petty theft (from a teammate), redshirt sophomore tackle Andre Fluellen could be FSU's most experienced interior player. Though he had a solid spring, Fluellen played sparingly in 12 games in 2004, finishing with fewer than 10 tackles.
That leaves redshirt freshman Aaron Jones and January enrollee Emmanuel Dunbar in the thick of the battle for playing time, along with 2005 signee Kendrick Stewart.
Contrary to some internet reports, heralded signee Callahan Bright, who was expected to have an immediate impact on the playing rotation, has very little chance of qualifying, according to sources in the athletic department.
This relatively bleak outlook has been mostly ignored by the mainstream media, largely because coaches are reluctant to talk about players' academic standing.
While disappointing, the interior troubles apparently didn't come as a big surprise, based on spring practice observations. The Seminoles dabbled with a 3-4 defensive set, something they have shown from time to time in the past, particularly against pass-happy Florida. That formation would play to FSU's strength at linebacker, but it may not be the long-term answer, in part because of the personnel playing at defensive end.
Ends Kamerion Wimbley, Darrell Burston and Barry Wright all are undersized to begin with, relying more on speed and finesse to play the position. That's not a good fit in a three-man front for the ends, who often are asked to line up to the inside of 300-pound offensive tackles.