February 7, 2006
TALLAHASSEE -- Watching Leonard Hamilton on the sideline during ACC games, one can't help but wonder how much farther he can walk down that emotional tightrope before falling off.
Hamilton masterfully has managed the art of restraint. He often masks his frustration with a sarcastic smile, typically following an official's disputed call. He often seems to be thinking one thing -- "I see what's going on here, and I'm mad as heck about it" -- but saying another, usually with a respectful tone.
That sarcastic smile was one Hamilton wore throughout the Seminoles' recent 97-96 overtime loss at Duke. He continued the theme in his comments after the game.
That's not to say that the fourth-year FSU coach hasn't shown some emotion. At one especially frustrating point in the Duke game, he flashed the athleticism that led to his induction into the Tennessee-Martin sports hall of fame, punctuating a 360-degree sideline spin by spiking his sport coat on the Seminoles' bench.
The move was nearly as impressive as the Blue Devils' 43-11 advantage in free throw attempts, which enabled coach Mike Krzyzewski's team to outscore the Seminoles 31-10 from the line.
"When you're in a position like us, on that climb trying to earn the respect and become a team of significance, a part of the journey is overcoming obstacles," Hamilton said afterward. "Obviously, this was one I thought mentally and physically we were prepared for, and (we) came up a little bit short."
Florida State's bid to climb the ACC ladder, from its decade-long, second-division status, has been frustrating. The loss at Duke dropped the Seminoles to 4-5 in league play. The five losses had come by a total of 17 points, a margin that speaks to how far the program has come under Hamilton's direction.
Publicly, the coach is the master at taking the high road. He won't criticize officials, nor will he allow his players to do so. That was obvious following the Duke game, even though the Seminoles had ample opportunities and legitimate reasons to complain.
Aside from the free throw disparity, FSU lost starting center Alexander Johnson to disqualification with 9:39 to play in regulation, when official Mike Eades assessed a double technical foul. The controversial play came when Johnson intentionally slammed Duke center Shelden Williams -- for Johnson's fourth foul of the game -- to prevent a dunk, then backed away from the mass of players under the basket. Williams immediately took exception to the hard foul and charged Johnson. Johnson did not retaliate -- indeed, he purposefully moved away from the confrontation and likely helped avoid an ugly scene -- but he still was slapped with a technical, and thus his fifth foul of the game.
"I saw it one way, and the referee saw it another," Hamilton said. "I thought A.J. was aggressive on the foul. I thought it could have been ruled an intentional foul. I thought A.J. was making an attempt to back away and not be aggressive at that point. The officials had their own interpretation. That's something you have to live with."
Up until that point, Johnson had played Williams to a virtual draw on the court, scoring 13 points and grabbing 11 rebounds.
"(Williams) got off the floor, he went in my face and I walked away," Johnson said. "I didn't say nothing to him. I guess now, instead of walking away, I got to run away."
Williams hung around and scored 14 of his 27 points in Johnson's absence, despite playing the rest of the game with four fouls.
"I guess you just have to give (Williams) credit for being a great defender inside without fouling out," Hamilton said, his comments dripping with sarcasm.
Credit senior point guard Todd Galloway for taking his cue from Hamilton. When asked how his driving attempt at a game-tying layup with four seconds remaining in overtime ended up in the stands after an encounter with Williams at the basket, Galloway said: "I'm not sure how it got there, either. There was some contact, and the ball came loose. I thought it went out on him, but it must not have."
Afterward, Galloway good-naturedly approached official Ray Natili about the no-call. "I just told him, Hey, that was a good call. Maybe I'll get one the next time.'" Maybe.
It's fairly clear that Hamilton won't do anything to potentially compromise that possibility. He downplayed the decisive disparity in free throws, and he undoubtedly instructed his players to do so as well.
"For me to be complaining about the disparity in the fouls, or anything like that, would take away the spirit of the game," Hamilton said. "At the end of the day, regardless, they made a few more plays than we did. ... Probably the one thing that was the difference in this game is Duke has been in these situations time and time again. They are accustomed to people coming in and giving them their best shot."
The trick now is for Hamilton and the Seminoles to continue their emotional tightrope walk -- without falling off -- until they can earn respect as a team that is going to do the same each night in the ACC.
THORNTON DESERVES ALL-ACC LOOK
Though Al Thornton's game still needs refining, Florida State's junior forward is no longer the ACC's hidden gem. If that wasn't evident when he torched Boston College for 37 points in last month's road loss, it was after he matched that figure -- while adding 15 rebounds and five assists -- in the Seminoles' overtime loss at Duke.
"We overcame one of the great performances of an individual that has been done here in the last five years," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. "Thornton's performance was nothing less than spectacular."
In 42 minutes, Thornton matched certifiable first-team All-ACC picks J.J. Redick and Shelden Williams with a stunning array of big plays.
By scoring 10 of FSU's first 12 points, he helped the Seminoles overcome the stage-fright that normally comes with a visit to Cameron Indoor Stadium. And there was no shortage of highlight plays on his resume, including:
a gravity-defying baseline drive around Williams, when he managed to double-pump in mid-air and kiss the ball off the backboard with the dexterity of a contortionist, and;
his two-handed hammer home of Isaiah Swann's errant layup attempt, which gave the Seminoles an 89-87 overtime lead.
"Al is very capable of having these types of nights," Hamilton said. "He seems to always rise to the occasion, whenever we need it. ... I think that our team reflects Al, the way Al is going. We as a team are getting better. Al is the leader of our team, and he represents that because he gives so much effort."
Even Redick marveled at Thornton's performance, which unfortunately for FSU also included an errant three-point attempt that could have tied the game at 94.
"I thought it was going in, the way he was playing," said Redick, whose three-pointer had given the Blue Devils a 94-91 lead on the previous possession. "Thornton is one of the best players in the conference."
SAVVY RICH GETTING COMFORTABLE
Jason Rich carries himself with a maturity that belies his standing as a sophomore for the Seminoles. Thoughtful and attentive, he has an ability to assimilate information that has enabled him to earn the most playing time among the trio of guards -- also including Swann and Ralph Mims -- Hamilton brought in last season.
A starter in 2005-06, Rich just now is beginning to bring all of his talents together. And it couldn't come at a better time for an FSU team that needs a consistent third scoring option behind Thornton and Johnson.
Through the first six ACC games of the season, Rich averaged just 8.8 points, focusing his attention more on defense and rebounding from the wing guard spot. A vocal leader on a team that gets little of that from the point guard position, Rich was often the player pulling the team together before free throws and dispensing advice during dead-ball situations.
But after scoring a season-low five points in FSU's win at Wake Forest, Rich has looked more like the player many of the nation's top programs coveted nearly as much as his former Orlando high school rival Darius Washington, who is starring at Memphis.
In a three-game stretch against Miami, Clemson and Duke, Rich twice went for a career-high 20 points, connecting on 23 of 38 shots (60.5 percent) from the floor. His value to the team, at both ends of the floor, also could be found in his minutes played (106) during that same span.