March 10, 2003 TALLAHASSEE Florida State forward Anthony Richardson, who grew up in Raleigh, has followed the ACC Tournament for most of his life. He doesn't need a history lesson to know that upsets can and do happen, even for teams in the play-in game.
Best of all, he remembers N.C. State's run to the championship game as the No. 8 seed in 1997, when the Wolfpack became the only eighth or ninth seed to win more than one game in the tournament. Led by C.C. Harrison, Jeremy Hyatt and Justin Gainey, the Pack knocked off No. 9 Georgia Tech, No. 1 Duke and No. 5 Maryland before falling to No. 3 North Carolina 64-54 in the championship game at the Greensboro Coliseum.
I know some of those guys, Richardson said. I've played them. It's possible. It's just a matter of us going out and playing.
Certainly, the ACC Tournament appears more wide-open than ever before, even for a Florida State team that finished last in the conference for the first time in 12 seasons. If top-seeded Wake Forest a team that beat the Seminoles 60-56 just three weeks ago can win its first outright title in 41 years, then why not?
As a player, I never try to say anybody's better than us, Richardson said. Some teams are, but you never want to say it. You want to feel like you can go out and beat anybody on any given night. This year, it's actually possible for us to go out and beat anybody. It's just a matter of us playing up to our potential that night.
In order for the Seminoles to make any kind of run, they will have to be at their best defensively; which is how they've managed to remain competitive throughout the season. Though the Seminoles have the most anemic offense (68.2 ppg) in the league, they rank second in scoring defense (66.7 ppg) and third in field goal defense (.390). To give those numbers some perspective, you have to dig deep into FSU's record book to another era in order to find comparable statistics. The 1963-64 team was the last to allow fewer points (65.6) than first-year coach Leonard Hamilton's squad. And you have to go back to 1956-57 to find a better field goal defense (.367).
Unlike Richardson, junior college transfer Tim Pickett wasn't well-heeled on ACC hoops until this season. Never mind that he played at the same high school as former UNC standout Vince Carter. Pickett didn't treat the league with any reverence either, pouring in 16.9 points and grabbing 5.6 rebounds a game to lead FSU in both areas. He also led the ACC in steals (77).
This being my first year in the ACC, I've learned that the ACC has its ups and downs, anybody on any night can be upset, Pickett said. I think a lot of people are going to take us for granted. I feel like it's the best opportunity for us to pull an upset.
In order for the Seminoles to have any breakthrough, they must figure out a way to win some of the close games they lost along the way. Three of the league losses have been by fewer than five points, including 61-60 at UNC and 74-72 against Maryland.
We've been in the close games, Richardson said. We've got to learn from them. We know how to come back, and we're learning how to win.
As it stands, the Seminoles will have a favorable draw, though they have never won more than one game in the postseason affair. With Maryland and Duke in the opposite half of the bracket, FSU would need only to win one game and pull one big upset (in the second round against Wake Forest) to get back over .500 on the season and qualify for an NIT berth. The Georgia Tech-N.C. State winner then would stand in the way of a trip to the final.
Such pie-in-the-sky thinking is not beyond the realm of imagination for Pickett, who will need a big offensive tournament to make anything possible. You can count on the gregarious newcomer to give it his best effort.
I'd rather come up short than just give in, Pickett said. I'd rather go out with a fight than just say, ëHey, you take it.' Ö I'm the type of person who believes that you have to fight for what you want. Even though we're in last place, I'm not giving up. Anything can happen in the ACC Tournament.
The Seminoles are banking on it.
Long-Term Future Looks Brighter
If the Seminoles accomplished nothing else in their first season under Hamilton, they served notice that they won't be bullied about by their ACC brethren, particularly at home.
FSU's ACC road woes an 0-16 mark over the past two seasons must be addressed before Hamilton's team will begin to gain the respect it seeks, but the prospects of that changing appear right around the corner. Yes, the ACC is younger than it has been in some time, but the new blood Hamilton is bringing on board next season should yield immediate benefits.
Swingman Von Wafer, widely rated among the top 10 prospects in the country, should provide an immediate lift as long as he stays on his current course toward qualifying academically. He is likely the best pure shooter FSU has signed since the days of George McCloud, and he will immediately take some of the scoring burden off Pickett and Richardson. Wafer also is a fluid athlete who doesn't bring a me-first attitude to the floor when it comes to sharing the ball.
The biggest addition to FSU's class will be just that junior college transfer forward Diego Romero. The Argentinian junior national standout (6-10, 240) from Lon Morris Junior College in Texas has three-point range, solid passing skills and an explosive move to the basket. It's a combination the Seminoles have lacked from a big man since Douglas Edwards. While vastly improved Trevor Harvey exhausts his eligibility this spring, Romero won't be confused for any in the recently long line of FSU big-man busts.
Juco swingman Eddie Griffin, out of Arizona via Los Angeles, fits the mold of the 6-6 to 6-8 players Hamilton likes to deploy in order to exploit matchups at both ends of the floor. Though an average three-point shooter, he is a slasher and finisher with a strong upside, the kind of prospect who could keep inconsistent Michael Joiner on the bench.
Still, there are many X-factors when looking into FSU's future. Freshman forward Al Thornton, who has been working out with the team since enrolling in January, has received mixed reviews so far. His perimeter shooting needs polishing, but his athleticism should fit nicely into the mix.
With point guards Nate Johnson and Todd Galloway returning, floor leadership shouldn't be a problem. Johnson is the kind of player who will be more effective with a better supporting cast, while Galloway has shown that he has the physical gifts to be competitive against the ACC's other promising young lead guards. The healthy return of swingman Andrew Wilson from wrist surgery would further deepen the core of Pickett, Richardson, Joiner and Benson Callier.
It remains to be seen what kind of help Hamilton will have for Romero and Adam Waleskowski on the inside. Senior Mike Mathews, who struggled to grasp Hamilton's system before exploding on Duke for 18 second-half points, must graduate this summer in order to regain his fourth year of eligibility. Though the Seminoles technically don't have a scholarship remaining, they have continued to recruit. Hamilton's only words on Mathews' future have been that he hopes things work out for both parties.