February 2, 2004 TALLAHASSEE Florida State athletic director Dave Hart has spared no expense in an attempt to realize his vision for the Seminoles' basketball program to rank among the upper echelon of the ACC. Second-year coach Leonard Hamilton is on the same page as Hart, although he prefers to talk about building a program of significance. Consecutive victories over then top-10s North Carolina and Wake Forest, followed by an impressive 56-49 loss at No. 1 Duke, seemed to indicate that FSU (15-6, 3-4 ACC) is moving closer to those positions. A strong second-half finish to the ACC schedule even could put the Seminoles back in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998.
Possible? Certainly. Probable? Not unless Hamilton can close the door on a 19-game ACC road losing streak. With five of eight second-half games on the road at Maryland, N.C. State, North Carolina, Wake Forest and Georgia Tech the Seminoles can't simply hold serve on their home floor and expect to get there.
We're still learning what it takes to play at this level, said Hamilton, who must accelerate the learning curve from this point.
FSU's performance at Duke was commendable, given that the Seminoles had a chance to win with less than a minute to play despite shooting 29 percent from the floor. Still, it's impossible to dismiss the recurring offensive struggles, which led to losses at Clemson and UVa, as mere coincidence.
While Hamilton should be commended for integrating a number of holdovers from the Steve Robinson era into his system, he has every right to demand and expect more from them in an effort to end the road losing streak.
Veterans Must Rise To Occasion
So far, they haven't. Veterans Michael Joiner, Mike Mathews, Adam Waleskowski, Andrew Wilson and Anthony Richardson still appear to be carrying the backage accrued from their pre-Hamilton playing days. Collectively, that group is just 2-25 on the road in ACC play. Of that bunch, only Joiner, Mathews and Wilson have experienced a league road win, contributing to the 2001 victories at Maryland and Clemson.
Based on the performance of the holdovers in the Duke loss, it would appear that Wilson is most ready to take a step forward and help the Seminoles get over the hump. He knocked down a career-best three three-pointers and finished with a season-high nine points against the Blue Devils. The other four? They combined for six points on three-of-18 shooting in 66 minutes, managed 10 rebounds and turned the ball over eight times.
The one defining characteristic the veterans appear to share on the road is fear in most cases, a simple fear of making a mistake. Instead of dunking the basketball from point-blank range, Mathews, Joiner and Waleskowski put up soft shots that were either off the mark or easy prey for Duke shot-swatter Shelden Williams. Collectively, they displayed their fragility by hesitating to come to the ball to receive a pass, picking up their dribble under pressure, or just by wanting to get rid of the ball as quickly as possible. What's most troubling is that those mistakes are being made by third- fourth- and (in Mathews' case) fifth-year players, and they are exactly the kind of mistakes all home teams devour.
Hamilton has little choice but to use his veterans, since they make up nearly half of his 10-player rotation. To their credit, their often-timid approach at the offensive end hasn't carried over to defense. Still, the Seminoles won't be able to reach their goals unless the veterans or at least a few more than Wilson can find their confidence on the road.
Hamilton already has taken steps to reduce Mathews' minutes. And Richardson, whose month-long offensive funk clearly took a toll on his confidence, has been limited to brief stretches of playing time. Hamilton, however, doesn't have that luxury with Joiner and Waleskowski.
Unless those two come around, or until Richardson regains his form, the burden of carrying the team will continue to fall on seniors and juco transfers Tim Pickett and Nate Johnson, as well as freshmen Alexander Johnson and Von Wafer.
Time is not on Hamilton's side. Consecutive road games at Maryland and N.C. State to open the second half of the ACC slate may be the two most important on the Seminoles' schedule. If FSU's most seasoned veterans aren't able to step up and deliver at least one of those games to the win column, Hamilton may be forced to move on, with his youngsters playing an even more prominent role down the stretch.
Good News Energizing Bowden?
A 10-win season, coupled with some excellent news on the recruiting trail in January, appears to have revitalized Florida State football coach Bobby Bowden. Long considered one of the top closers in the business, Bowden stepped spritely as he headed toward the Feb. 4 signing day, with another bountiful class of commitments in tow.
It's almost like he can't wait to get to the next place to talk to the next player and to the next family, long-time FSU defensive coordinator Mickey Andrews said. The energy and enthusiasm that he's got right now it makes you want to work just a little bit harder. Winning makes you walk a little lighter.
Unencumbered by last season's burdens, when the Adrian McPherson gambling saga came on the heels of a second straight subpar season, Bowden has picked up his gait. Recruiting coordinator John Lilly said the 74-year-old coach looks like he's just getting started, rather than slowing down.
It's amazing what can happen when a couple of close games fall your way. Pulling out fourth-quarter wins over Georgia Tech, N.C. State and Florida was not only the difference between a 10-3 or 7-6 finish. Those victories helped create the national perception that the Seminoles are back among the elite of college football.
From coast to coast, five-star prospects have been contacting Florida State for the opportunity to put on the garnet and gold. Even parents, who a year ago listened to opposing coaches tell tales of the Seminoles' imminent demise, again appear as receptive as ever. If Penn State coach Joe Paterno only had it so good.
FSU won't be able to assess its precise talent haul until signing day, but if high-profile commitments at quarterback, offensive line, receiver and defensive line hold up, the Seminoles should have one of the nation's top five classes.