December 13, 2004 TALLAHASSEE No one will mistake Florida State's consecutive basketball road wins at Minnesota and Mississippi as a precursor of things to come. The Gophers and Rebels hardly qualified as quality opponents.
But when you're trying to build confidence within a club that has five first-year players and only one man on the roster (fifth-year junior Andrew Wilson) who has ever experienced an ACC road win, you evaluate progress a little differently.
Winning consecutive road games for the first time since 1997 certainly qualifies if you're FSU coach Leonard Hamilton, whose Seminoles will get their first shot at snapping a 24-game ACC road losing streak Dec. 19 at Maryland.
"It's a tremendous boost for our team and our confidence," Hamilton said, following the Seminoles' 69-64 win at Ole Miss. "We've had different guys step up and produce the last two (games). We're trying to sell them that this is the way we have to play."
With FSU just 4-3 heading into a stretch that includes seven of its next nine games at home, it was hard to evaluate exactly where the Seminoles stood. Their record may indicate otherwise, but after following up a 70-69 win at Minnesota with a win at Ole Miss, the players did take some baby steps toward respectability.
Remember, this is a team that finished 19-14 last season but dropped 10 games by seven points or less, with seven of those contests on the road.
"I think we're just figuring it out," mercurial sophomore guard Von Wafer said. "We're almost there. We're at the door. The other night we made a step to kick it open."
"It was nice to have a blend of young players and experienced players out there playing together, because that's who we are," said Hamilton, who is still trying to lock down a 10-man rotation. "We are showing signs of getting better in a lot of different areas."
Freshman guard Jason Rich's steal and layup in the waning seconds at Ole Miss sealed the victory. Wafer led FSU's charge from a 14-point deficit at Minnesota.
"What has happened is that our younger players, who we think are the future of our program, have played well enough that they deserve to play," Hamilton said. "Our experienced players have played well enough where they need to continue to keep leading. It's starting to balance itself out."
Hamilton would like to think he'll have settled on a playing rotation by the time the Seminoles get to College Park, and no later than a Dec. 30 trip to New Orleans, where they will face LSU. That would give him two games to iron out some patches before the ACC season gets underway in earnest Jan. 8 against Virginia Tech.
Here's what the coach knows at this point:
p There won't be a single player to replace the production of graduated senior guard Tim Pickett, but that won't necessarily be a problem. Through the first seven games, 10 different Seminoles turned in at least one double-figure scoring performance.
p Freshman guards Isaiah Swann, Ralph Mims and Rich will play a pivotal role
in the team's immediate future. They are averaging between
14-16 minutes a game each, combining for nearly 17 points, better than 50 percent shooting from the floor and 85 percent from the free throw line.
p Sophomore Al Thornton may be the team's most valuable player. The lanky forward provides matchup problems at the offensive end and the energy to fuel a defense that, while improving, needs to establish a tougher identity.
p The frontcourt of Alexander Johnson, Adam Waleskowski and Diego Romero must become more assertive. In a league that isn't particularly overloaded with dynamic frontcourts, the Seminoles can't afford to be out-rebounded every night, as they were in five of the first seven games.
Hamilton can live with the incremental progress he's seen thus far, but as the stakes are about to be raised, the Seminoles have to move on from taking baby steps to making strides as the 2004 portion of the schedule winds to a close.
Graduation Rates See Dips, Spikes
A group of 13 FSU football players participated in the school's December graduation ceremony, including All-ACC selections in offensive tackle Alex Barron, defensive end Chauncey Davis, defensive tackle Travis Johnson, cornerback Bryant McFadden and wide receiver Chauncey Stovall.
It was an impressive collection, especially given FSU's recent low marks from the NCAA. The official numbers showed that the Seminoles graduated just 33 percent (five of 15) of their 1997 signing class in the allotted six-year window.
"I'm not proud of that 33 percent, not by a long shot," FSU athletic director Dave Hart said. "But I do feel pretty good about our performance in a 10-year window. As you look at each class, you will see dips and you will see spikes. I feel strong that we are doing a good job of graduating our student-athletes."
FSU's shortcomings in the recent graduation rate numbers merit some explanation. Because of the NCAA's formula, they did not include three players Chris Weinke, Keith Cottrell and Carver Donaldson who enrolled in January 1998.
Also noteworthy: Seven of the 15 countable members of the 1997 class never took a redshirt season and left school at least one semester early to pursue NFL careers. Included in that bunch are tailback Travis Minor, defensive end Jamal Reynolds, kicker Sebastian Janikowski and safety Derrick Gibson. All are still on NFL rosters.
Olympic Sports: A Mixed Message?
Florida State is coming off its best finish ever in the Director's Cup standings, which tabulate the overall success of an athletic program based on winning percentages and postseason appearances. Hart deserves a great deal of credit for the program's overall growth, overseeing unprecedented improvements in facilities and resources for all sports.
One of the people largely responsible for FSU's climb was women's soccer coach Patrick Baker, who took a moribund program and built one of the nation's best in six seasons, including five consecutive NCAA Tournament berths and a trip to the 2003 Final Four.
Baker, however, recently took his 80-46-11 record to Georgia, which promised a lucrative raise, top-flight facilities and a long-term contract. Conversely, he was working on a year-to-year deal at FSU, a practice Hart has maintained with his coaches in all sports except football and basketball.
"Patrick did a great job during his tenure here," Hart said, "and because of that we have a very attractive position, which we must now fill."
That wouldn't have been the case had Hart taken steps to assure that Baker would have been set for the long haul at FSU with a long-term contract. It seems that by letting Baker go to Georgia, Hart is acknowledging that FSU's commitment to Olympic (non-revenue) sports runs only so deep, that he isn't willing to lock up even key personnel with long-term deals.
For a school that has never been in compliance with Title IX, it's a message that could be costly on a number of fronts in the future.