By Bob Thomas
November 22, 2005
TALLAHASSEE -- Leonard Hamilton harbors no illusions about his fourth Florida State basketball team.
He knows the Seminoles, picked to finish no better than 10th in the ACC, cannot match the starting lineup firepower of the league favorites. Yet he also knows he's never fielded an FSU team as deep or athletic as the one that will take the floor this season.
"Maybe we don't have four starters as good as Miami's," Hamilton said.
Hamilton, however, is eager to test drive his theory that the Seminoles might be able to neutralize some of those deficiencies with a 10-player rotation that can run the floor and potentially wear down the opposition.
Critics who have wondered aloud whether Hamilton has mismanaged his substitution patterns over the years will have plenty of ammunition if the Seminoles don't improve on last season's underachieving 12-19 performance. For the third time in four years, FSU finished with the worst record (4-12) in ACC play.
But Hamilton is never one to worry about the critics or preseason prognostications.
"If you look back at last year, the only team to finish in the position they were predicted was North Carolina," Hamilton said of the ACC regular-season and NCAA champions. "We have not earned the right to get a vote of confidence from people who make those predictions. It's not something we concern ourselves with."
The Seminoles entered this season with some very real concerns. They must replace three of their top five scorers from one of the most anemic offensive teams in the league. FSU also ranked among the worst in protecting the basketball and rebounding.
Shortcomings aside, last season's team managed to beat Minnesota, Florida, Virginia Tech, Wake Forest and N.C. State. All of them qualified for the postseason. Of course, FSU also suffered head-scratching losses to Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and Florida International.
Poor chemistry, nagging injuries and the inability to finish close games -- the Seminoles lost nine by five points or less -- prevented the team from making an expected run at the NCAA Tournament on the heels of its 2004 NIT berth.
"Last season was tough for everybody," junior forward Alexander Johnson said. "Not just me. It was tough for the coaching staff, the team. We started going forward last season, and it turned out being the worst season."
Johnson could have been the poster child for what went wrong. An ACC all-rookie pick as a freshman, he regressed. An early season leg injury led him to put on weight and play lethargically.
The personnel issues didn't stop there. Chronic tendonitis limited 6-10 forward Diego Romero. Guard Von Wafer, the team's leading scorer and non-conformist, was habitually in Hamilton's doghouse and was benched late in the season. Couple those issues with an inexperienced backcourt and a team that couldn't shake itself from heart-wrenching defeats, and you have the recipe for a collapse.
Unburdened by expectations, perhaps the Seminoles now are poised to author one of the league's biggest surprises. Much as the graduation of FSU football quarterback Chris Rix improved the chemistry on Bobby Bowden's team, Hamilton's club may reap the addition-by-subtraction benefit of Wafer's decision to leave early for the NBA.
Though difficult to define, chemistry is an essential ingredient, especially for teams that lack individual firepower. To that end, FSU's offseason was a pleasant surprise.
"This team really appears to enjoy playing with each other," Hamilton said. "There are so many things that they do that confirm that. It's so obvious that they care about one another, they respect one another. They are a team that has a good chemistry and good spirit, and we hope that continues to grow."
Not only did the Seminoles wrestle coveted big man Uche Echefu from North Carolina in recruiting, they welcomed back Johnson, who trimmed 20 pounds from his 6-10 frame, and a healthy Romero following corrective knee surgery. Hamilton also expects junior forward Al Thornton to perform as he did down the stretch last year, when he averaged 14 points and six rebounds as a starter over the final six games.
"A.J. and Al have gotten to the point where they are much more comfortable," Hamilton said. "They're reacting much more than they're thinking (on the floor).
"People who have not seen (Echefu) don't realize that he has the potential to be a very versatile player. He is more of a prototype power forward at 6-9, 230 pounds, who can play inside and outside. He is in a good situation, because we need him to be productive."
Todd Galloway is back for his senior season as the floor leader in a league where there are precious few proven stars this season. Jason Rich, Isaiah Swann and Ralph Mims are now seasoned sophomores with a better understanding of their redefined roles.
For the first time since his arrival prior to the 2002-03 season, Hamilton may have the athletes at his disposal to kick the running game into gear.
"We're starting to develop the running mentality that we like to see, and I think we'll be able to utilize our athleticism and quickness better," Hamilton said. "We do have guys that have the ability to be effective in the open court. If you can get out and push the ball, you have the tendency to get more open looks."
Productivity, especially at the offensive end, has been a problem since the Seminoles logged second-place finishes in their first two seasons of ACC play. Those teams were stocked with future NBA players such as Charlie Ward and Bob Sura.
Hamilton's current crop may not have any first-round draft picks, but scoring ability shouldn't be an issue. Swann, Rich, Galloway and sixth-year swingman Andrew Wilson all shot the ball well from the perimeter in the preseason. So did junior college transfer Jerel Allen. A wing guard, he offers some of the same qualities that All-ACC performer Tim Pickett possessed, though Allen's game is perhaps more polished.
Whether it's finishing at the rim in transition or draining jumpers off the secondary break, the Seminoles should see their woeful 68.6 scoring average improve without having to execute flawlessly in halfcourt sets.
"Last year, we found ourselves walking the ball down the floor a lot more than I'd like to," Hamilton said. "A lot of it was due to the fact that I didn't think our defense was sound enough to get steals, force turnovers and get out in transition. So we are working hard on defense, where we can keep opponents in the 37- to 39-percent field goal range, which will allow us to attack a lot more. We have what we call 14-second scrimmages, where we set the shot clock at 14 seconds. I think that fits the mentality of our team."
Optimism isn't uncommon in the preseason, even for lightly regarded teams such as FSU. But this season has a different feel, according to Wilson.
"I've been here for six years, and I've learned to keep my mouth shut," he said. "But I feel better about this season than any other team since I've been here."
Is it an illusion, or reality?
"We won't try and fool ourselves," Hamilton said. "We might not have a Tim Pickett or a J.J. Redick, but at other places I've been we haven't necessarily had those kinds of players. But we've had good players who understood how to play together, so we became very difficult to play against."
That's the challenge again this year.
Year ACC Overall Postseason
1996 5-11 (8) 13-14 None
1997 6-10 (7) 20-12 NIT Final Four
1998 6-10 (6) 18-14 NIT 2nd Round
1999 5-11 (7) 13-17 None
2000 6-10 (6) 12-17 None
2001 4-12 (8) 9-21 None
2002 4-12 (7) 12-17 None
2003 4-12 (9) 14-15 None
2004 6-10 (7) 19-14 NIT 2nd Round
2005 4-12 (10) 12-19 None
x - won ACC title
Name Ht./Wt. Pos. Class
Todd Galloway* 5-11/178 PG Sr.
Diego Romero* 6-10/240 BF Sr.
Andrew Wilson* 6-6/206 WF Sr.
Jerel Allen 6-4/195 WG Jr.
Alexander Johnson* 6-10/250 C Jr.
Al Thornton 6-7/208 WF Jr.
Ralph Mims 6-2/200 PG So.
Jason Rich 6-3/185 WG So.
Isaiah Swann 6-1/197 WG So.
Casaan Breeden 6-8/195 WF Fr.
Uche Echefu 6-9/220 BF Fr.
* - returning starter
In three years, Al Thornton has overcome poor shooting mechanics, terrible conditioning, inadequate strength and frequent mental mistakes to the extent that more of his (pro-caliber) natural talent is shining through with each passing week. Too strong for wing forwards and too quick for power forwards, he'll be a serious matchup problem for most opponents if he can continue to build consistency. Todd Galloway, who started all 31 games last season, offers a quiet stability at point guard but still must improve his assist-turnover (92-73) ratio and become more of a scoring threat. Andrew Wilson, a respected but moderately talented sixth-year senior, continues to fill a starting role on the wing because of his leadership, intensity, shooting ability (35.5 percent threes) and attention to detail.
OTHER KEY RETURNEES
Diego Romero and Alexander Johnson are talented, experienced frontcourt players whose potential remains intriguing. Romero is a European-style, pass-first big man who can run the offense adroitly through the high post, while Johnson is a skilled low post scorer who upgraded his conditioning after a disappointing sophomore season. Isaiah Swann, whose freshman year fizzled because of a failed experiment at point guard (24 assists, 45 turnovers in ACC games), has played better since moving to wing guard. He attended both summer sessions at FSU while working out twice a day, and his daily routine of 500-plus shots from the perimeter should help him achieve his goal of extending his range. Ralph Mims found his comfort zone last year in the opposite direction, after taking over as Galloway's backup at point guard, a role he'll keep this season. Jason Rich made perhaps the most impressive debut of FSU's newcomers in 2004-05, starting 11 games and earning a reputation as a lock-down defender. He, too, worked hard this summer to improve his shooting range, after hitting only 22 percent of his three-pointers.
Jerel Allen continues the long line of junior college products to sign with FSU, whose best players during the school's ACC era include one-time juco guards Sam Cassell and Tim Pickett. Allen, who has a reputation as a big-time scorer (17.2 ppg, 42.2 percent on threes) from the perimeter, underwent surgery on Nov. 5 to remove an infection in his knee, but he's expected to be fine and should be a regular member of a deep rotation. Uche Echefu, already well-known in Tallahassee because he picked the Seminoles over North Carolina this spring, will be asked to provide some bulk inside, but he's also capable of scoring from outside. Casaan Breeden is long and athletic but began the season a few steps behind the other 10 scholarship players.
ALSO WORTH NOTING
The Seminoles lost nine games last season by a total of 19 points, including six in the conference by a combined 10 points. ... At the two previous college head coaching stops for Leonard Hamilton, his Oklahoma State program made a big leap during his third season, while his Miami team didn't post a winning record until year five. From that point, in both cases, the coach's teams never again had a losing campaign on his watch. This is Hamilton's fourth year at FSU, after seasons of 14-15, 19-14 and 12-19.
Chart By: The FSU Insider