March 29, 2004 TALLAHASSEE It's impossible to ignore the contributions senior guards Tim Pickett and Nate Johnson made to the improbable second-year turnaround under coach Leonard Hamilton. With its first winning season is six years and another bountiful recruiting class in the making Florida State appears on the road to recovery after more than a decade of cellar-dwelling darkness in the ACC. A 19-14 finish, despite a disappointing 62-59 second-round NIT ouster at the hands of Iowa State at home, was no small feat. Yet for those who want to write the Seminoles' return to a place of prominence in ink, pencil and a healthy dose of caution should be the instruments of choice. To understand exactly what Pickett and Johnson junior college transfers who immediately provided backcourt stability to Hamilton's reclamation project have meant should be underscored. When Pickett was on, he was one of the nation's best players. And when Johnson was drilling the opener jumper while quietly directing traffic with a minimum of mistakes, the Seminoles were hard to beat. The loss to the Cyclones magnified their collective value. Pickett made just one of 13 attempts from three-point range, and with Johnson unable to penetrate Iowa State's zone, the FSU offense ground to a halt. Now plug in heralded backcourt signees Isaiah Swann and Jason Rich to that equation, and don't forget the ups and downs heralded freshman guard Von Wafer endured along the way. What you have now is the recipe for more nights like the final one the Seminoles endured. Yes, FSU will be young next season, and despite the return of some important elements, the Seminoles largely will lack experience. In addition, they will not be able to sneak up on opponents, courtesy of their 15-3 home record. Privately, Hamilton admitted that this season provided FSU with a rare window of opportunity to make a big splash. That window closed with a five-game, regular season-ending losing streak, denying the Seminoles a place in the NCAA field. In his Iowa State post-mortem, Hamilton said at least half-jokingly that he would give his team a day-and-a-half off before getting back to work. Indeed, there is much work to be done if FSU is going to have any chance to take that next step next season. In some ways, we will probably be in more of a learning mode (next season), Hamilton said. I think Nate and Tim have set some pretty high standards. I think we just have to give (Rich and Swann) time to come in and learn and grow and earn their rightful place. There's little doubt that Swann should have the first crack among the newcomers not counting promising high-post presence Diego Romero, a juco transfer who sat out 2003-04 after encountering NCAA eligibility complications (since resolved) of making an immediate impact. While backup point guard Todd Galloway will return as a junior, his ineffectiveness in directing FSU's half-court offense was painfully apparent throughout the season. That's not to say Galloway won't have a role. He'll likely get the first crack at the starting job, and even if he can't hold off Swann, he'll provide a lift in up-tempo games. But Hamilton admits his team was exposed by the lack of a play-making lead guard. That team weakness was masked for much of the year, because playing zone defense in the ACC borders on heresy. Swann, a potential scoring point guard, can get to the rim. That's something FSU has not had since Delvon Arrington left three years ago, and even he certainly wasn't an outstanding scorer. If Wafer and Rich can live up to their advanced billing as bonafide perimeter threats, and Romero can spread the floor (think of a healthy Vytas Danelius from Wake Forest), the transition might not be so painful. Still, it will be hard to pick the Seminoles to finish in the top half of the ACC in 2004-05 at this point. Not in a league where every team figures to return a wealth of experienced backcourt talent. We have had some moments that have proven that we are moving in the right direction, Hamilton said, and we have a chance, in the near future, of being a program of significance. How soon? It's too early to tell, but the growing pains for FSU basketball aren't over. The marked improvement over the past season was something to behold, but it may be the equivalent of an aspirin to a migraine. Waleskowski Coming On Strong While the development of all-rookie forward Alexander Johnson proved to be one of the most pleasant surprises of the 2003-04 basketball season, the improvement of junior forward Adam Waleskowski may have ranked as one of the biggest in the league. While closing the season with back-to-back double-doubles at Wichita State (10 points, 10 rebounds) and against Iowa State (14-10) the first of his career Waleskowski began to look an awful lot like his brother. Dayton's Keith Waleskowski was arguably one of the most consistent senior power forwards in the country over the past two years. After averaging just 4.1 points and 3.0 rebounds as a sophomore, FSU's Waleskowski improved to 6.8 points and 5.4 rebounds as a junior. Hamilton praised Waleskowski for his improvement and the effort he gave each night. In a league devoid of bonafide big men, Waleskowski's ability to defend the post and rebound, as well as extend defenses with three-point shooting, will be a commodity FSU should be able to count on next season. And that's something the Seminoles haven't had since joining the ACC 13 years ago. Assistant Jones: Hot Commodity Throughout Hamilton's final five and best seasons at Miami, Stan Jones cemented himself as one of the nation's most prominent assistant coaches, so it's no surprise in 2004 that Hamilton has to concern himself with the prospect of retaining Jones at FSU. At 44, Jones is in the prime of his career, as far as potential advancement. It doesn't hurt that his one season as Rick Stansbury's top assistant at Mississippi State, after Hamilton headed off for the NBA's Washington Wizards, was one of the best in the history of that program. Most recently, Southern Miss had Jones as one of its top targets, before hiring former Iowa State coach Larry Eustachy for the job. A tireless worker and a respected strategist, Jones also is an accomplished recruiter who has built an outstanding rapport with young players, including those at FSU. Rising from the high school ranks in Tennessee and Mississippi, he has maintained strong recruiting ties in the Southeast. A teacher who builds confidence in players with quiet instruction, Jones appears to have the perfect temperament as a potential head man on the bench. And it's widely acknowledged that he built a very good name for himself during the five-year run at Miami with Hamilton. Jones' immediate future should play out in the next couple weeks, as Miami athletic director Paul Dee sets out to find a replacement for Perry Clark. Of course, don't expect to see Jones' name at the top of those lists of potential candidates, because the Hurricanes will try to hit it big to coincide with their move into the ACC. But if Miami officials were willing to cut ties with Clark, who has an ACC background and a deep reservoir of recruiting connections, they may be willing to take a run at a capable assistant if their primary targets don't pan out. In Jones, the Hurricanes would be getting a man who understands the intricacies of the job quite well because of his time in Coral Gables.