March 14, 2005 TALLAHASSEE After 31 games, Florida State's basketball season finally expired with a 70-54 opening-round ACC Tournament loss to N.C. State. To no one's surprise, the Seminoles' finale was but another formulaic performance, including an extended scoring drought, a tantalizing run and a defeat. In a season when many anticipated FSU would build on a 19-14 run in 2003-04 that included an NIT appearance, it flamed out.
The final mark, 12-19, told only part of the story. The Seminoles were good enough to be in position to win eight games on the final possession, but they lost each time. Six of their ACC losses came by a total of 10 points, as they were saddled with a 12th consecutive losing league record (4-12). That's second only to Virginia's league-record 14 consecutive losing seasons, an undesirable record established more than 30 years ago.
In his third season, coach Leonard Hamilton conceded that his team was consistently inconsistent. Eight times the Seminoles failed to score 60 points, and their defense long a Hamilton staple sagged for the second consecutive year. Grudgingly, Hamilton admitted that the rebuilding process will take time.
He has that on his side. Despite the desires of some fickle fans, Hamilton's job is not in jeopardy. Not next season, anyway. He'll get at least a full five years to turn things around, and he likely will need every day of that span. The ACC's already-stout composition will get only tougher with next season's addition of Boston College.
"We've been in this position before," Hamilton said. "The development process is what it is. Unfortunately, I was hoping that we would not have to go through the normal process. I kind of hoped that we had stepped up and maybe been a year ahead of ourselves and that we would not have to go through this period."
Clearly, the staff must address its personnel shortcomings in the late signing period. Early signees Casaan Breeden and Ryan Reid, a pair of rangy forwards with promising upsides, were a start.
What the Seminoles still lack, however, is a reliable scorer and a playmaking floor leader. Enigmatic sophomore guard Von Wafer, at this point, appears headed the same way as the Seminoles' previous three McDonald's All-Americans. Forward Anthony Richardson, forward Randell Jackson and guard Lamar Greer all failed to live up to their advance billing.
Rumors remain rampant that Wafer may either transfer or hold the laughter, please declare himself eligible for the 2005 NBA draft. Never mind that he can't remember which side of the floor to line up on, or on many occasions show a modest amount of interest in defending anyone.
"We have to have some guys step up, and we may have to bring that kind of player into our program this year to stabilize us a little bit," Hamilton said, hinting that he may have to dip back into the junior college ranks. "We need to add the right pieces. If we do that, I think this team can improve."
Of course, the danger there is creating a void that can't be filled through recruiting, much like last season's departures of jucos Tim Pickett and Nate Johnson did this season.
That's a fate that stunted any potential development for former coach Steve Robinson's teams, which leaned on junior college players Terrell Baker and Monte Cummings. And you could argue that the Seminoles haven't signed a big-impact prep scorer since coach Pat Kennedy brought in swingman Bob Sura and later guard James Collins in the early 1990s.
As for the point guard position, Hamilton must decide whether he can advance the program next season with rising senior Todd Galloway running the show and promising but unpolished sophomore Ralph Mims as his backup. He'll have to weigh the decision of bringing in a more seasoned leader for a two-year stint (and juco pickings appear slim this spring), or hold out in hopes of landing one of next year's prep seniors from an impeccable class of point guards.
Finally, there's the issue of finding or developing a man in the middle. The graduation of Adam Waleskowski, inarguably the team's most consistent post player, will leave Alexander Johnson and Diego Romero as the top returning options. Both were beset with physical maladies this season.
Johnson's myriad of health issues, rumored to include vision and hypertension, left many wondering what happened to last season's all-freshman selection. Health aside, Johnson still hasn't learned not to put the ball on the floor down low, and his slow-footedness was exploited in a league where there is no shortage of big men capable of pulling him away from the basket to create defensive mismatches.
Romero clearly is advanced in the nuances of the sport, but his acumen for the game was seldom on display, largely because of a season-long battle with tendonitis in his knees, which will require offseason surgery. At best, Hamilton will have Romero back healthy for one season as the high post option he covets. At worst, the Seminoles will be shorthanded and forced to play with an undersized lineup.
Clearly, there is no shortage of issues that must be addressed in a short period of time. Barring a stunning late recruiting coup or three, Hamilton's team once again will have to cope with the "narrow margin of error" he's spoken of since his arrival.
Thornton, Freshmen Provide Hope
While forecasting gloom and doom is relatively easy, there were positive signs from a handful of players who will be back in 2005-06.
When given extended minutes, rising junior forward Al Thornton showed he can be one of the league's most exciting and perhaps most productive players. A 6-8 matchup problem for every team in the league, Thornton made his numbers soar to nearly 15 points and seven rebounds per game when he logged at least 20 minutes.
The Seminoles would like to be able to lock those numbers into the boxscore every night, but in order to do so, Thornton must improve his defensive fundamentals, which often lead to early foul trouble, curtailing his minutes. Additional ball-handling work and an improved jumper from right at the three-point arc also would help.
What the Seminoles need desperately is for the freshman guard trio of Jason Rich, Isaiah Swann and Mims to make the normal growth leap from first- to second-year players. If nothing else, Hamilton has to be encouraged that they are youngsters driven to succeed who appear to have been soured by the team's poor chemistry.
Rich may have the brightest future of them all. Prior to getting poked in the eye just before the start of the exhibition season, Hamilton was gushing over the 6-3 wing guard.
"Before he was hurt," Hamilton said, "(Rich) may have been our best player."
That should surprise no one who followed his prep career. Rich regularly battled Memphis super-frosh Darius Washington to a draw in head-to-head duels in Orlando.
"There's a lot of things coming into this season that I realize now I didn't know, and when (the coaches) were telling me I didn't realize how important it was," Rich said of his growth over the season. "This summer is going to be huge for all of us, working on our individual games and just gaining a better understanding of our system. If we can do that, our future is bright."
Rich averaged nearly eight points over the last half-dozen games, when he began to take minutes away from junior Andrew Wilson as one the team's primary defenders.
Hamilton admitted that his biggest mistake this season was not allowing Mims to log more minutes at point guard, instead forcing them on Swann.
Over the final six games, the rookies swapped places. Mims not only held his own while spelling Galloway, but Swann flourished at times at the wing guard spot, which clearly is his natural position.