By Brian Landman,
St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times
November 15, 2004 TALLAHASSEE At the time, Florida State could view it only as a source of frustration.
After racing to an 18-8 record by mid-February, including eye-catching wins against Maryland, North Carolina, Wake Forest and Georgia Tech, the Seminoles seemed poised to reach the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998.
Then came a seven-point loss at UNC, a three-point overtime loss at Wake Forest, a five-point loss at home against Duke, a three-point loss at Georgia Tech and a seven-point loss to N.C. State in the ACC Tournament.
Five ranked opponents. Five missed opportunities. Hello, NIT.
"We were one game away from the NCAAs," senior Anthony Richardson said.
Most observers agree that a win in any of those five games would have put FSU in the 65-team field, despite a soft non-conference schedule and a dismal road record. Now the Seminoles view that agonizingly narrow margin between March Madness and simply being mad (sorry, NIT) as a source of motivation for 2004-05.
"When you look back at our season and analyze how our season went, we had a lot of near-victories," said coach Leonard Hamilton, referring to five other regular-season losses (Pittsburgh, Duke, N.C. State, Clemson, Virginia) that were within single-digits. "I want the guys to look back and realize that we came so close and they have to wonder: Was there a little something extra we all could have done that possibly could have put us over the hump?"
To a player, the answer could be nothing but a yes. Maybe they could be better conditioned. Some sure could stand to work harder on free throw shooting. Others could more fully and zealously embrace the offensive and, especially, the defensive philosophies.
Make no mistake. This year's Seminoles are shooting for more than the second round of the NIT, even with the loss of do-everything guard Tim Pickett.
That's buoyed not only by how close they came in March but by the arrival of a top-shelf recruiting class. Hamilton, long renowned for his recruiting prowess, signed a trio of heralded prep guards Isaiah Swann, Jason Rich and Ralph Mims as well as junior college transfer Antonio Griffin.
All will be counted on to be major contributors, as will forward Diego Romero. A former member of Argentina's junior national team, the 6-10 Romero sat out last season while fighting to regain his amateur status. He arrived at FSU last year as one of the most well-regarded big men in the junior college ranks.
That Fab Five, who might become the face of the program before season's end, joins a nucleus of Richardson, Alexander Johnson, Adam Waleskowski, Von Wafer, Todd Galloway, Al Thornton and the oft-injured Andrew Wilson.
"It's something new (without Pickett)," Johnson said. "We understand that. Shoot, it's our time now. We've got guys who are going to step up."
Johnson himself could take the largest step toward stardom. Of course, it no longer pains him to take any step. He entered last season coming off surgery to his ankles, which prevented him from being able to average much more than 20 minutes and from being quick enough to avoid foul trouble against the more athletic post players he faced.
"My ankles are great; no ankle problems. I'm through with that," Johnson said. "This year, it'll be a different A.J. I guarantee it."
That should mean healthier averages than 9.5 points (second on the team) and 4.2 rebounds, stats that were good enough to earn him a spot on the ACC all-freshman team along with Wake Forest's Chris Paul and Duke's Luol Deng.
"We think he's only scratched the surface of his potential," Hamilton said.
Waleskowski, who led the team in rebounding (6.8) despite starting just three games, finished last season on a high. He had 10 points and 10 rebounds in the NIT opening-round win at Wichita State and followed with 14 points and 10 rebounds against Iowa State.
Richardson could use a little of that consistency. After a strong start last season, including 27 points in a win against Northwestern, he struggled, lost his starting job in mid-January and saw fewer and fewer minutes. The Seminoles need more than 7.3 points and 3.6 rebounds from the one-time McDonald's All-American.
"You're going to see a lot smarter basketball player, a lot stronger player and a lot more confident player," Richardson said. "I'm very happy that I went through what I went through (last season), because it basically turned me into a man."
Wafer, like Richardson before him, earned McDonald's All-America honors and had his moments. He twice was named the ACC rookie of the week, one of just three players (Paul and Deng) to win that honor more than once. But too often, he lost confidence if he misfired.
"Von is showing signs of doing what most freshmen do between their freshman and sophomore years: (gaining a) better understanding of how to utilize his talents in our system," Hamilton said. "He's also accepted the fact that for him to reach his full potential he has to be more of a complete player."
Wilson is fundamentally sound, does all the little things, and had his moments as a scorer, too. He hit seven three-pointers in a loss at UNC. But he's coming off surgery to remove bone from his right foot and will have to round into shape. Galloway should benefit from his playing time last season as a backup and, more importantly, should be able to use his dizzying speed better in a more up-tempo offense.
The greatest hope for an offensive star a la Pickett may come from the newcomers. Swann, who will battle Galloway for the starting point guard spot, averaged 28 points on the nation's top prep team last year. Rich, a true sharpshooter, averaged 21.5. Mims averaged 24.7.
Romero might have the largest impact on offense, although you might not realize that by merely glancing at the box score. He has uncanny vision and the unselfishness to find teammates.
"I prefer passing the ball and getting everybody (else) excited," Romero said. "I was a (soccer) goalkeeper. I never scored. I cheered for everybody else."
"Larry Brown has coined the phrase, ëPlaying the game the right way,'" Hamilton said. "(Romero) plays the game the right way."
Romero is the prototypical Hamilton big man, a pass-first player who can hit a medium-range jump shot. His skills should benefit Johnson and Waleskowski down low and Richardson, Wafer, Wilson, Griffin and Thornton on the perimeter, as well as Galloway (he can shoot the three-pointer) and the freshman guards.
Hamilton is banking on a more balanced offense to make the difference. The defensive-minded coach is expecting make that demanding his team to be stingier on defense. Not that last year's team was bad. FSU allowed 65.1 points (second in the ACC behind Duke) and 40.1 percent field goal shooting (second behind Georgia Tech).
"There were times we played very good defense last year, but we were not able to capitalize on and turn missed shots into fastbreak baskets," Hamilton said. "We're going to try to do a better job of getting some easier baskets."
Even one key basket in one key game could re-shape the Seminoles' season. Or postseason.
|1997||6-10 (7)||20-12||NIT Final Four|
|1998||6-10 (6)||18-14||NIT 2nd Round|
|2004||6-10 (7)||19-14||NIT 2nd Round|
x won ACC title
* returning starter
With well-regarded junior college transfer Diego Romero as the axis, FSU will attempt a transformation from a guard-oriented (re: Tim Pickett) offense to an inside-out scheme. Romero provides coach Leonard Hamilton with the high-post forward he always has coveted, and through him the offense will pass. The Argentinian, who sat out last season after the NCAA waited until January to clear his eligibility, will use his deft passing skills to feed powerful sophomore Alexander Johnson (9.5 ppg) and solid senior Adam Waleskowski (5.4 rpg). For the first time in a decade, the Seminoles should benefit from the presence of multiple post players with finishing ability.
Other Key Returnees
Anthony Richardson's uneven career may have found a healthy middle ground, accepting coaching in an effort to tap into his undeniable athletic prowess. His coaches and teammates raved about his attitude and skills in the preseason. Fifth-year junior Andrew Wilson always has been a relentless competitor and defender, and perhaps he finally can add good health to his all-around contributions. Swift point guard Todd Galloway (171 career assists) may not inherit the starting job, but he'll give the offense a lift by pushing the ball. Von Wafer (43 three-pointers) can provide offensive answers, if his defense and maturity continue to come around. Versatility may allow Al Thornton to expand his role from occasional energizer to regular contributor at three positions.
A trio of freshman guards Isaiah Swann, Ralph Mims and Jason Rich are more than the future of FSU's backcourt. Swann, a point guard with a scorer's mentality, may be the starter by season's end. Mims is a combo guard in a point guard's body, but Maine's Mr. Basketball can fill it up (28.9 ppg). Rich may be the most complete player of the three, but he'll be in a tight battle for minutes on the wing. Collectively, they have the best basketball IQ of Hamilton's three recruiting classes in Tallahassee. Long and athletic, juco Antonio Griffin brings attitude to the floor, but he's still working off the rust from a two-year layoff.
Also Worth Noting
Richardson has grown a full inch (to 6-8), but it's his growth in maturity that led Hamilton to call him the team's most pleasant surprise in the preseason. "It's been a great year for Argentina basketball, the best year," said Romero, who is anxious to carve his own niche after his native country won an Olympic gold medal and countryman Manu Ginobili emerged as an NBA star in San Antonio. FSU's only hope of breaking through for its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 1998 is to quickly end its 24-game ACC road losing streak. Home-and-home dates with primary partners Miami and Clemson should help. The delicate balance of building experience on a squad with eight first- or second-year players, while trying to build an NCAA-worthy resume, will be hard to strike. A premium will be placed on neutral-site games with Kent State, TCU and LSU, plus road dates at Minnesota and Mississippi.
CHART BY: THE FSU INSIDER