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Although Thornton Is Gone, Plenty Of Talent Remains

Thursday, September 11, 2008 11:41am
By: Accsports Staff

By Scott Carter
Tampa (Fla.) Tribune

November 20, 2007

TALLAHASSEE – Maybe Florida State would have made the NCAA Tournament last season if the Seminoles had won their ACC home opener against Clemson rather than watch Tigers guard Cliff Hammonds hit a last-second shot.

Maybe FSU would have been dancing in March if guard Toney Douglas hadn't broken his hand and missed five games during a crucial late-season stretch.

Maybe if Boston College's Sean Marshall had missed that ridiculous three-pointer at the buzzer instead of sinking it, FSU could have said hello March Madness, goodbye NIT.

That's too many maybes for FSU senior guard Jason Rich to ponder. And the list doesn't stop there. So, rather than take another trip down memory lane this season and add to the list of heartbreaks, Rich wants to take care of business so the Seminoles won't have to sit around on Selection Sunday wondering about their fate like the last two seasons.

"We've been close the past two years," Rich said. "We have to understand that close isn't good enough. We can't be going into the ACC Tournament saying, ‘We have to win this many games to make the (NCAA) Tournament.' We want to know we're already in there.

"We have to take care of that in the regular season. We've been in a lot of close situations, and we understand where we fell short in those situations. I think that can help us."

FSU coach Leonard Hamilton took over a program in disarray in March 2002, and he steadily has built the Seminoles into postseason contenders. FSU has three NIT appearances in the past five years and finished 22-13 a year ago, giving the Seminoles back-to-back 20-win seasons for the first time in 14 years.

But what FSU still lacks is its first NCAA bid since 1998. To snap the dubious streak, the Seminoles must succeed without last year's ACC player of the year runner-up, Al Thornton. He took his 19.7 points and 7.2 rebounds with him as a lottery pick in the 2007 NBA draft.

"We have to be coachable and just buy into the system," Douglas said. "Al carried us on his shoulders. I loved playing with Al while he was here. He was one of the best players in the country. But the thing is, we still didn't make the tournament."

Some coaches might be worried about job security after not getting to the NCAA Tournament despite having the program's best player in a decade. But not Hamilton, who is convinced his 2007-08 team can be every bit as good as it was the last two years with Thornton's dynamic offensive skills leading the way.

"We are much further along than we have been," Hamilton said. "Al is a great player. People ask us, ‘How are we going to fill the void, losing a guy of his ability?' He set that bar high. We feel very confident our players will benefit from being around a guy who improved as much as he did."

To quiet speculation about Hamilton's future, FSU president T.K. Wetherell gave the 59-year-old coach a two-year contract extension on the eve of the team's season-opening win over Nicholls State. The coach's deal now runs through 2011-12.

The next five seasons certainly would provide Hamilton with ample time to complete a rebuilding project similar to the ones he constructed at his previous college stops, at Oklahoma State and Miami.

"I am very happy and appreciative of the university's and athletic administration's confidence in our program and staff," Hamilton said. "We are pledged to take Seminole basketball to new heights. We are well on our way to becoming a program of significance in the ACC and nationally."

For that to happen, FSU will rely on a veteran backcourt that includes Rich, Douglas, Isaiah Swann and Ralph Mims. All four started or played significant minutes a year ago. They provide Hamilton with one of the league's most experienced and talented backcourts.

Douglas, who averaged 12.7 points and 2.9 assists after sitting out the 2005-06 season following his transfer from Auburn, is the centerpiece of FSU's backcourt. The Seminoles suffered five consecutive losses late last season with Douglas injured, severely hampering their bid to make the tournament.

In Swann and Rich, FSU has a pair of talented players with different skill sets. Swann is the team's best three-point shooter – he nearly single-handedly kept FSU close in the NIT loss at Mississippi State by hitting nine three-pointers – but needs to work harder on the defensive end. Rich is a slasher who averaged 10.3 points last season and can create his own shot or make shots from the outside. He also is one of the team's best defenders. Mims is expected to come off the bench and back up Douglas at point guard.

"Our guard play is going to be our strength," said Douglas, whose hand has fully healed.

While the frontcourt certainly will miss the presence of Thornton, FSU expects more production from returning players Ryan Reid, Uche Echefu and Casaan Breeden.

In terms of ability, Breeden probably has the most upside. A fourth-year junior forward, he averaged just 2.9 points as a sophomore, but he showed signs of his ability by scoring a career-high 10 points on 4-of-4 shooting in FSU's second-round NIT win over Michigan.

But for FSU to fulfill the promise Hamilton believes it has, a talented freshman class that includes 6-10 power forward Julian Vaughn and 7-1 center Solomon Alabi must live up to its potential. Wing Jordan Demercy and guard Chris Blake (suspended for the first semester) are the other newcomers.

"They are probably a little more capable of making contributions at a quicker pace," Hamilton said of his freshman class. "These guys have been exposed (to strong competition), and they bring winning attitudes to the program."

Vaughn graduated as the all-time leading rebounder in the history of high school powerhouse Oak Hill Academy. Alabi arrives from recent in-state power Montverde Academy near Orlando. Demercy's team last season at Norcross (Ga.) High was nationally ranked.

But Vaughn and Alabi are clearly the players the fans are most excited about, because they provide FSU with size it hasn't had in recent years. Vaughn has a wingspan over 7-3, and Alabi has impressed his coaches and teammates with his energy and intelligence. Alabi, however, will be sidelined early because of a hairline fracture in his right shin.

"They create a presence in the paint, offensively and defensively," Rich said. "That is going to create a balance. Yeah, we're strong on the perimeter, but we don't want to just rely on the jump shot. They love to be coached. They understand they don't know what they're doing right now and that they need to learn. I'm more impressed by that more than anything else."

If the newcomers inside can contribute enough to take some pressure off the veteran guards, FSU could be one of the ACC's biggest surprises. Regardless, the Seminoles will be one of the league's hungriest teams, especially with that elusive NCAA bid still defining the program's relevancy.

"We are some junkyard dogs," Breeden said. "We are willing to eat and beat anything that comes around us. We want to get to the tournament."


Track Record

Year ACC Overall Postseason
1998 6-10 (6) 18-14 NCAA 2nd Round
1999 5-11 (7) 13-17 None
2000 6-10 (6) 12-17 None
2001 4-12 (8) 9-21 None
2002 4-12 (7) 12-17 None
2003 4-12 (9) 14-15 None
2004 6-10 (7) 19-14 NIT 2nd Round
2005 4-12 (10) 12-19 None
2006 9-7 (5) 20-10 NIT 2nd Round
2007 7-9 (8) 22-13 NIT Elite Eight

x – won ACC title

2007-08 Roster

Name Ht./Wt. Pos. Class
Ralph Mims 6-3/205 PG Sr.
Jason Rich* 6-3/211 WG Sr.
Isaiah Swann* 6-2/198 WG Sr.
Casaan Breeden 6-8/202 WF Jr.
Toney Douglas* 6-1/200 PG Jr.
Uche Echefu* 6-9/225 BF So.
Ryan Reid 6-8/237 C So.
Solomon Alabi 7-1/241 C Fr.
Chris Blake 6-5/191 WG Fr.
Jordan Demercy 6-7/204 WF Fr.
Julian Vaughn 6-10/239 BF Fr.

* – returning starter

Building Blocks

After playing in support of graduated NBA lottery pick Al Thornton, a trio of fourth-year guards – seniors Isaiah Swann and Jason Rich and redshirt junior Toney Douglas – will form the axis of the Seminoles' attack. Perhaps the best three-point shooter in school history and an under-appreciated distributor (259 career assists), Swann could emerge as one of the ACC's top scorers. Rich regularly draws the most difficult defensive assignment away from the basket. While a capable scorer, he has lacked consistency and shown signs of late-season fatigue. The key is Douglas. A fearless scorer with the ability to create his own shot, he was coming into his own as the point guard last season when his broken hand wrecked the Seminoles' NCAA bid. His emergence as a leader, despite a quiet personality, will be pivotal.

Other Key Returnees

After toiling as an undersized post player, Uche Echefu must demonstrate a more assertive attitude and improve on his modest 6.9 points and 4.3 rebounds at power forward. Ryan Reid is a high-hoops-IQ widebody who led the team in charges drawn but has shown little diversity at the offensive end. Casaan Breeden has the skills to be a mismatch problem for defenses, but the junior has yet to demonstrate the patience necessary to garner more time. Ralph Mims is a capable floor leader off the bench, but his lack of quickness and decisiveness often bogs down FSU's half-court attack. An 80 percent career shooter from the line, he will provide meaningful minutes in end-game situations, where the Seminoles have struggled in recent seasons.

Some Introductions

Coach Leonard Hamilton came up big – literally – in the recruiting game with the addition of two post players, each with wingspans exceeding 7-3, to boost a woeful interior game. Julian Vaughn is a more polished version of former FSU big man Alexander Johnson, though he possesses a voracious appetite for rebounding. An Oak Hill grad, Vaughn brings a rebound-first mentality to a team that doesn't have a returnee who averaged more than 4.3 per game. There is little doubt that 7-1 Solomon Alabi is capable of taking FSU places it has never been. His recovery from a right leg stress fracture is pivotal, because his defensive presence in a league of talented bigs could enable this guard-centered team to flourish. Swingman Jordan Demercy is athletic and could serve as a spot defender, though his perimeter shooting skills are marginal. Combo guard Chris Blake appears headed for a redshirt campaign.

Also Worth Noting

Hamilton's teams once were defined by defense, but the Seminoles have been heading in the wrong direction for three seasons, bottoming out with last year's .451 field goal defense. ... A year ago, FSU was 12th in the ACC in assists (12.37) and defensive rebounding (20.83), two problem spots that have yet to be solved. ... Perennially one of the worst free throw shooting teams, FSU led the conference last season (.758), thanks to the addition of noted shooting guru Andy Enfield as an assistant. Getting to the line, however, remained a problem, as the Seminoles ranked seventh with just 498 attempts. ... By the end of the season, FSU should be the only team in the ACC with three 1,000-point scorers (Douglas, Swann and Rich).

Chart By: The FSU Insider