By Jack Corcoran, Tallahassee (Fla.) Democrat
April 7, 2003 TALLAHASSEE Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton, who made his mark resuscitating programs at Oklahoma State and Miami, had to remind himself to be patient again and again during his first season with the long-suffering Seminoles.
Hamilton had the experience to know the turnaround wasn't going to come overnight, especially in the ACC. But time had taken the painful edge off the memory of his 8-20 record that first season with Oklahoma State in 1986-87. His 10-year stay at Miami began with a 9-19 mark in 1990-91. Starting over isn't easy.
That was a long time ago, Hamilton said.
The Seminoles can only hope the disappointment that accompanied so many narrow defeats in Hamilton's first season in Tallahassee also will become just a bad memory. The program has reason to be optimistic, even after finishing alone in last place for the first time since entering the conference in 1991-92. The foundation, from the coaching staff to the school's new $10 million practice facility, appears in solid shape.
I think for the first year, the transition was a very good one and a very smooth one, FSU athletic director Dave Hart said. I was pleased with our progress.
FSU flirted with the .500 mark but came up just short, finishing 14-15 to miss out on the postseason for the fifth consecutive season. The Seminoles went 4-12 in conference play for the third straight year and again took part in what has become an annual clash with Clemson in the ACC Tournament play-in game.
But the blowout losses that were commonplace in Steve Robinson's final two years were rare in 2002-03. FSU played Wake Forest tough in three games and took Florida and Maryland down to the wire. Another upset at home over Duke was the highlight of the campaign.
But I do feel this team has a chance to come back next year with focus, Hamilton said. I think we're going to improve our talent pool.
Recruiting was Robinson's biggest weakness in his five seasons with the Seminoles, who haven't broken the six-win mark in the league since 1992-93. Hamilton, aided by associate head coach Stan Jones and assistants Mike Jaskulski and Tony Sheals, already has turned heads on the recruiting trail.
The Seminoles snagged 6-4 shooting guard Tim Pickett last summer after the SEC wouldn't budge on a rule that requires juco transfers to complete at least three consecutive semesters at the same school. Pickett, who originally signed a national letter of intent with South Carolina, averaged 17.1 points for FSU and led the ACC with 82 steals.
Pickett often was the only threat from the perimeter and was forced to handle too much of the offensive load. Von Wafer might change that.
Wafer, widely regarded as one of the nation's top prep prospects, signed with FSU in November to headline an impressive class. The 6-5 wing from Texas has touch and athleticism. He averaged 26 points during his senior season, which included a 40-point performance in his Tallahassee debut in February. He finished second to LeBron James at the McDonald's All-American dunk contest. The Seminoles also signed 6-10 juco forward/center Diego Romero and 6-6 juco wing Antonio Griffin. They were still dangling another scholarship heading into the spring signing period.
Another fresh face next season will belong to 6-8 forward Al Thornton, who enrolled at the semester break but redshirted the remainder of the season. At the time he signed, Thornton was considered the centerpiece of last year's class. Point guard Todd Galloway, who was actually signed by Robinson, will have something to say about the final pecking order. He was magnificent at times in his freshman season, averaging 6.9 points while backing up juco transfer Nate Johnson. Galloway led the team with 97 assists and showed exceptional speed to the basket in transition.
The Seminoles still have to overcome obvious hurdles in recruiting, starting with their legacy of losing in the ACC. Tepid fan support also remains a liability. But their 40,000-square-foot training center, adjacent to the Tallahassee Leon County Civic Center, began impressing recruits and visitors as soon as it was completed last year. The facility has all of the amenities, including a strength and conditioning center as well as a state-of-the-art video recording system and computer program to scout opponents.
The best bullets we have in recruiting are the reputation of the institution athletically, the ACC and Leonard, Jaskulski said. All of those can be done through the mail and over the phone. And then you still have this big bullet in your gun for when they get to campus. You can't really sell this building and the proximity to the arena over the phone. But when they get here, that's just one more thing that just knocks their socks off.
Hamilton has been known for his recruiting prowess since his days on the Kentucky staff from 1974-86. He reinforced his reputation while at the helm at Oklahoma State and Miami. On the court, he made defense his trademark.
That didn't change in his first season with the Seminoles, who believe it or not led the league in scoring defense. FSU yielded 66.6 points per game for the school's best defensive bottom line since 1963-64. Opponents shot 39.1 percent from the field. The effectiveness of the halfcourt man-to-man defense was what kept the Seminoles close in so many games despite a lack of depth and some suspect individual talent.
We needed to gain an identity, Jaskulski said. We needed to have something we could hang our hat on. The commitment to being good on that end of the court is now entrenched in our guys. They have embraced that.
Improvement also was evident on an individual basis. At the ACC Tournament, Wake Forest coach Skip Prosser called Trevor Harvey the conference's most improved player and credited Hamilton's staff for the job it did with the 6-11 center. Harvey, FSU's only departing starter, wasn't alone. Ultra-athletic small forward Anthony Richardson also made notable strides during his sophomore season, developing into the team's No. 2 scorer. He averaged 12.4 points, finding his comfort zone inside the three-point arc.
I think Leonard has just an outstanding staff, Hart said. I think they're not only good recruiters but outstanding teachers. Fundamentally speaking, they know the game well and can teach the game. They have a knack for having what they say be absorbed.
That included convincing the Seminoles they could compete with and even beat superior talent. The sales job might not be so tough in the years to come.
I feel this program is going to skyrocket in the next three or four years, Harvey said. I do wish I had one more year here. I'm going to still stay tuned in to watch this team grow, because I know some special things are going to happen.