March 1, 2005
TALLAHASSEE Leonard Hamilton had every reason to snap when referee Jamie Luckie's whistle with 0.4 seconds to play put Georgia Tech's B.J. Elder on the line for a pair of free throws that led to a 76-75 victory for the Yellow Jackets.
Luckie's suspect call video replays conclusively showed him not in position to whistle Andrew Wilson for the game-altering foul merited outrage by the third-year FSU coach. Hamilton showed amazing restraint, especially when Luckie oddly sidled up alongside him while the deciding free throws were administered.
Hamilton, however, no longer could bite his tongue after the snake-bitten Seminoles rolled over and wilted 48 hours later in a 65-49 loss to visiting Miami.
The defeat didn't hurt nearly as much as the lack of judgment by leading scorers Von Wafer and Al Thornton, who were benched for the game's first 17 minutes because of undisclosed transgressions. As he has throughout his career, Hamilton stood by his principles in enforcing the rules outcome be damned.
"Well, I really didn't make the decision," Hamilton said. "The rules are already set. We all agreed to them. Obviously, you don't make these types of decisions because someone makes a mistake one time. If you are worried about the foundation of your team and the direction you want to go in, we all have to hold ourselves accountable."
As far as accounting goes, FSU's numbers are strikingly and disappointingly familiar. For the 12th consecutive season, the Seminoles have lost at least 10 ACC games. That means they haven't won more than six league contests since going 11-5 and 12-4 in their first two seasons as conference members.
Though the Seminoles have just two seniors on their roster, this was a team that was supposed to contend for an NCAA berth, one loaded with talented underclassmen who had the physical tools to contend in the ACC on a nightly basis.
On many occasions, FSU has done just that. Six of its first 10 ACC defeats came by a total of 10 points. Maddeningly close to being in the middle of the pack, the Seminoles still appear to be miles away from making that leap. Eight times this year, FSU either has been beaten or failed to win on the game's final possession.
Why has FSU been unable to get over the hump in close games? Hamilton offered some insight following the Miami loss.
"I've been coaching since 1971, and this team has been more puzzling to me than any other team I've been associated with," Hamilton said. "We've had more maturing issues in this one year. There always seems to be some little issue that keeps you off-balance and takes the spirit away from this team and keeps it from going in the direction it's trying to go."
The Seminoles clearly lack the strong leadership of upperclassmen that, on successful teams, would keep repeat transgressions from taking place. Mind you, this is not a team with questionable characters who turn up on the police blotter. Skipped classes, missed study halls and tardiness for team functions are more along the lines of the ongoing problems that Hamilton and the rest of the staff and team have failed to nip in the butt.
"We've got great youngsters on our team, but they still have growing-up issues," Hamilton said. "It's never anything bad enough to warrant anything permanent, but it's enough disregard (for) the rules and regulations that everybody agreed to in the fall."
Sadly, the Seminoles' most gifted player Wafer is the one who most often is guilty of such behavior. Prior to the first-half banishment against Miami, the sophomore already had been benched for two regular-season games and an exhibition.
At this point in Wafer's career, he has been branded as something of an enigma. He's a player who is visibly shaken by missed shots, who openly pouts when he's scolded, and who still lacks the all-around understanding of what it takes to be a complete and consistent performer. Never mind that he lacks the conviction to play tough at the defensive end.
The FSU staff has worked hard to nurture Wafer through what they hoped would be a developmental stage, but with each passing incident, it is becoming more clear that they may have to live with it, though perhaps not for long.
Astonishingly, there are persistent rumbles within the FSU rank-and-file that Wafer may declare himself eligible for the 2005 NBA draft. That he would even consider such a choice at this juncture is either a sign of an unknown, behind-the-scenes problem or proof that he has no concept of where he is developmentally.
This is the same player who described North Carolina bean-pole senior Jackie Manuel as a physical player, after he managed to take just two shots over the final 13 minutes in a loss to the Tar Heels. He's the same guy who laid on the ground face-down, slamming his hands to the floor after a missed three-pointer, while the opposing team nearly trampled him on a fastbreak. He's the same guy who missed three of five free throws in the waning seconds of the Georgia Tech loss, hastily launching attempts at the rim in crunch time.
Publicly, Wafer's teammates have taken the high road, declining to comment on his behavior or frequent disappearing acts when the team needs him most. That's not to say, however, that they don't understand his value.
"We tried our hardest to do without Von and Al, but they're our scorers," freshman guard Isaiah Swann said after the Miami loss. "We need them."
Maybe. But how much?
FSU's trio of freshman guards Jason Rich, Ralph Mims and Swann are fierce competitors who at this point in Hamilton's rebuilding job represent the future. It seems unlikely that the coach would be willing to subject them and the rest of the team to Wafer's ongoing behavioral problems.
Hamilton has been a rock in handling the disappointment of this season. It would not be the least bit surprising if he gave Wafer an ultimatum at season's end.
Hamilton Observing Point Guards
If Hamilton has one regret this season, it was his decision not to overload Mims with the burden of learning the offense at both the point guard and shooting guard positions.
Mims, a point guard throughout his prep career at Brunswick High in Maine (where he earned Mr. Basketball honors last season), finally is getting an extended look at the lead guard spot. The decision was made after Hamilton at least temporarily pulled the plug on the Swann experiment.
Swann has struggled to make the transition from scoring guard to point guard (54 assists, 69 turnovers through 27 games), so he recently was moved almost exclusively to the wing in an effort to help the ACC's worst scoring offense.
By giving Mims a longer look at the point, behind junior Todd Galloway, Hamilton is trying to determine whether or not it's imperative to bring in another point guard in the late signing period. He would prefer to hold out for one of the many talented floor leaders in the high school junior class.
In addition to Mims getting an audition, Rich has been picking up additional minutes on the wing, while spelling the offensively challenged Wilson. Unfortunately, the late-season juggling which included the elevation of Thornton into the starting lineup only continued a season-long search for effective combinations.
FSU already has signed two players, forwards Casaan Breeden and Ryan Reid. That initially left just one more scholarship spot, which likely will go to a true post player. Now it appears that Hamilton will have another slot available, with juco transfer Antonio Griffin who appeared in only eight of the first 27 games likely to transfer to a Division II school.
If Hamilton is convinced he can get by with a Galloway-Mims-Swann combination at the point next season, don't be surprised if he goes out and finds a bonafide scorer from the juco ranks.