March 6, 2007
TALLAHASSEE By any measure, Al Thornton's legacy at Florida State was sealed long before the ACC handed out its player of the year honor.
Whether or not Thornton won the award doesn't matter. What he has done in four and a half seasons in Tallahassee he was a late enrollee and sat out the balance of his first year is lift the Seminoles from second-division, after-thought status to a bona fide, 20-win type team over his last two seasons.
With unbridled energy and an unmatched work ethic, Thornton has elevated his game to the heights that could make him the first ACC player selected in the NBA draft this June. Along the way, he's carried the Seminoles into NCAA Tournament contention heading into the conference tournament.
"Al Thornton is a superstar," FSU coach Leonard Hamilton said. "He put us on his back and carried us."
That was more observation than revelation for anyone who has seen Thornton play this season.
Understanding that the Seminoles could not exorcise their NCAA Tournament demons short of winning the ACC Tournament with a victory, the 6-8 senior forward from tiny Perry, Ga., dumped a career-high 45 points on Miami to close the regular season with a 98-90 overtime road win.
Thornton, however, is defined by more than his numbers. He's been a class act throughout his career. Unlike some other stars, he prefers to show his stuff on the floor with relentless play, rather than post-dunk preening and howling, the latest rage in the college ranks.
That was never more evident than in the waning seconds of the Miami victory, when he was all alone in the frontcourt and easily could have provided the Seminoles with a C-note in his final regular-season game but chose instead to dribble out the clock.
What Thornton did not know was that a game-ending dunk would have established a new school record for points in a game, breaking the mark held by All-American forward Ronnie King, who scored 46 in one contest during FSU's 1971 run to the NCAA championship game.
But then, aside from flashing the Florida State name on his jersey to Duke's Cameron Crazies earlier this season, it just would not have been Thornton's style to pile it on the Hurricanes.
NCAA CANDIDACY COMPLICATED
Getting back to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998 was the reason Thornton returned to school for his senior season, and also the fuel that fires FSU's seven scholarship
Snubbed a year ago by the NCAA selection committee despite a 9-7 ACC record, the Seminoles will try to get in this season after finishing 7-9.
An improved non-conference schedule, along with quality wins over Florida, Duke, Virginia Tech and Maryland, will help. But the Seminoles will need to do more in the ACC Tournament to get off the bubble and over the hump.
Hamilton is taking nothing for chance.
"We have to go into the ACC Tournament with the attitude that we're going to win it," he said, following the Miami triumph.
That's likely the best philosophy for a program that has failed to win two games in a single ACC Tournament through its first 15 appearances.
A first-round victory in Tampa, likely over a Clemson team that twice has beaten FSU this season, probably won't provide enough assistance on its own. A second-round victory, against an NCAA Tournament lock such as Virginia or North Carolina, might be exactly the lift the Seminoles need.
The odds of winning two games in the ACC Tournament received a significant boost in the Miami game, when sophomore point guard Toney Douglas returned to the floor for the first time since breaking his right hand in the second half of a Feb. 7 loss at Clemson. Douglas' injury came in the first of five consecutive defeats, wiping out the work FSU had done to overcome an 0-3 start in league play.
Douglas not only returned against the Hurricanes, he gave the NCAA selection committee something to ponder, sinking the overtime-forcing three-pointer. He finished with 13 points and three assists in 32 minutes.
By playing well in his return, Douglas may have forced the committee to consider just how much his injury played into FSU's late-season swoon. Certainly, the team's second-leading scorer could have made a difference in a one-point home loss to Boston College and/or a three-point loss at Virginia.
In actuality, he likely meant much more. The Seminoles averaged better than 83 points with Douglas running the show in the seven games prior to his injury. FSU was 5-2 during that stretch. Without him, the team's offensive output plummeted to 64.1 points during a six-game stretch.
His return for the postseason, coupled with multiple victories at the ACC Tournament, almost definitely would make the committee sit up and take notice.
FISHER LANDS DESIRABLE DETAILS
Jimbo Fisher will receive an additional $210,000 from Seminole Boosters, on top of his $215,000 base salary and potential performance-based bonuses, to direct Florida State's offense this season.
While the numbers from that deal will make him the highest-paid assistant coach on FSU's staff, and one of the highest-paid assistants in the history of ACC football, there is additional contract language that is equally intriguing.
According to his contract, released last week by Florida State, should Bobby Bowden step down as head coach at any time over the course of Fisher's three-year deal, the school will have 30 days to notify him in writing whether it intends to make him the next head coach, or to retain him as an assistant.
While the language does not guarantee Fisher the opportunity to succeed Bowden, it clearly gives the former LSU coordinator additional stability, by not allowing FSU to drag out a coaching search without first considering him a candidate for the top job.