By Jack Corcoran
Tallahassee (Fla.) Democrat
November 22, 2006
TALLAHASSEE -- With bruising 6-9 center Alexander Johnson by his side, Al Thornton made the ACC take notice of Florida State last season.
Seven-footer Jon Kreft was supposed to help the Seminoles get over the top in 2006-07, providing a shotblocking presence in the paint for the first time in coach Leonard Hamilton's tenure in Tallahassee.
But Johnson and Kreft were both out of the picture by this spring. FSU was shrinking away. A new identity and plenty of adjustments were in order.
"In the beginning of the preseason, every day we came together (Hamilton) was like, 'We have to find our identity,'" junior guard Isaiah Swann said. "Who are we?"
They're small, quick and unconventional.
Point guard Toney Douglas figures to add plenty of style points. He averaged 16.9 points as a freshman at Auburn in 2004-05 but now has to run the offense. Guards Jason Rich and Swann also have proven that they can get up and down the court. Ralph Mims and Jerel Allen are poised for expanded roles in the deep backcourt.
But Thornton remains the centerpiece at FSU. He came back for his senior season hoping to lead the Seminoles to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1998.
"You can't ask for anything more," Rich said, "from a guy who has shown to be your proven leader."
Thornton's to-do list also includes completing his degree and improving his NBA stock. Johnson wasn't so patient.
Johnson declared for the draft just weeks after the Seminoles were snubbed by the NCAA selection committee. Then came Kreft's arrest on drug charges in South Florida. The prized recruit's scholarship was revoked before he could even make it to campus.
That wasn't all the attrition.
For the first time since taking over four years ago, Hamilton had vacancies to fill on his coaching staff. Mike Jaskulski left to become the associate head coach at Central Florida. Tony Sheals returned to his roots in junior college, leaving to take over at Palm Beach Community College. The departures opened the door for former NBA assistant Andy Enfield and Tony Carter, who worked under Hamilton at Oklahoma State and spent the previous 11 seasons as the head coach at Texas-San Antonio.
The staff will have to make do without many big bodies. FSU's frontcourt rotation consists of Thornton (6-8), sophomore Uche Echefu (6-9), freshman Ryan Reid (6-8) and athletic sophomore swingman Casaan Breeden (6-8).
"We can't use lack of size as an excuse for us not to be successful," Hamilton said. "We have to find a way,"
A high-low game featuring Thornton and Johnson was FSU's strength last season. The Seminoles usually were deliberate and looked to reverse the ball on the perimeter, before sending it inside and then going from there. But the plans changed with Johnson's defection and the addition of Douglas, who will attempt to break down defenses off the dribble.
A Parade All-America selection out of Jonesboro, Ga., Douglas scored at least 20 points in 12 games at Auburn but played mainly shooting guard.
"When he decides he needs to be somewhere on the court, he gets there," Enfield said. "He's learning right now how to run a team. We know he can score. What we're trying to teach him is that sometimes a point guard doesn't need to be a scorer."
Douglas declared for the NBA draft following his rookie season and eventually asked to be released from his scholarship at Auburn.
"He has a strong desire to learn how to run a basketball club," Hamilton said. "He wants to develop the command of the team and a total understanding of how to get us in and out of things. The challenge is just learning the system."
Four guards will wind up playing frequently with Thornton, who averaged 16.1 points and 6.9 rebounds last season. Expanded range allowed him to draw defenders away from the paint and then blow right by them to the basket. FSU started pushing the power forward for All-America honors over the summer.
Thornton, selected to the All-ACC first team in the preseason, often has been at his best against elite competition. He racked up 37 points on the road against Duke and Boston College last season. He scored 26 in the rematch against the Blue Devils, as the Seminoles upset the nation's top-ranked team.
"We're going to be a team that wears people down with our depth and our defense," Thornton said. "We're going to be a run-and-gun team."
A controversial split against Duke and a 9-7 mark in the ACC still didn't bring an end to FSU's tournament drought. The Seminoles, weighed down in the RPI by their weak non-conference schedule, had to settle for their second NIT appearance in three years and finished 20-10 overall.
An upgraded schedule could give them three consecutive games against top-10 competition early this season, when they visit Pittsburgh and Wisconsin before hosting defending national champion Florida.
"I think it's our time," Swann said. "I don't think it's going to be too much pressure at all. I believe in our team, and I know everybody else does. So we're going to the tournament."
If so, those little guys around Thornton will have to do their part. Douglas fired up 13.6 shots per game and made 62 three-pointers at Auburn. Swann also can score in bunches from the perimeter, but he has to cut down on his defensive lapses. Rich, a dependable mid-range shooter who has the athleticism to slash through the lane, averaged 10 points last season and stood out as FSU's top perimeter defender.
Mims backed up Todd Galloway at point guard last season and turned heads with his work in the offseason. Upon arriving from Mott Community College in Flint, Mich., Allen was effective on the defensive end but wasn't able to establish himself as a consistent threat from three-point range.
Hamilton hopes to use his guards interchangeably.
"We want our strength to be in the versatility of that group," Hamilton said.
Echefu, who played only 7.4 minutes per game last season, has the first crack at taking over at center. He has plenty of muscle on his 220-pound frame but prefers to play a finesse game.
"We need him to be a perimeter guy who hits jump shots from the perimeter just so we can be a little different," Hamilton said. "I'm not real sure posting up is Uche's game."
Hamilton has had to embrace change.
"We used to take a lot of pride at Miami by winning games ugly and really making teams grind it out to beat us," said FSU associate head coach Stan Jones, who spent five seasons on Hamilton's staff in Coral Gables. "This year it's going to have to be a little bit different focus, with the style of players we have right now."
Can FSU win pretty?
To Hamilton, winning ugly was beautiful. The Hurricanes made three straight trips to the NCAA Tournament before he left for the NBA.
"I wouldn't mind being unpleasing to the eye if we could get to the Sweet 16, like we did at Miami," Hamilton said. "But I think you have to play to the strengths of your team."
Year ACC Overall Postseason
1997 6-10 (7) 20-12 NIT Final Four
1998 6-10 (6) 18-14 NIT 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
x -- won ACC title
Name Ht./Wt. Pos. Class
Jerel Allen 6-4/192 WG Sr.
Al Thornton* 6-8/220 BF Sr.
Jason Rich* 6-3/200 WG Jr.
Isaiah Swann* 6-1/203 WG Jr.
Casaan Breeden 6-8/200 WF So.
Toney Douglas 6-1/196 PG So.
Uche Echefu 6-9/220 BF So.
Ralph Mims 6-2/210 PG So.
Aaron Holmes 6-5/185 WG Fr.
Ryan Reid 6-8/232 C Fr.
Josue Soto 6-0/165 PG Fr.
- -- returning starter
On his athleticism alone, senior Al Thornton ranks among the ACC's most explosive players. Still, the Seminoles' undisputed team leader holds value greater than the points and rebounds he accrues in bunches. At 6-8, with the ability to put the ball on the floor or shoot three-pointers, he's a matchup headache for the opposition who will create scoring opportunities for teammates Jason Rich and Isaiah Swann. Rich is the consummate role player. A deft mid-range shooter, with quick ups and a solid frame going to the basket, he also relishes the opportunity to be challenged defensively. A high-flying, risk-reward player, Swann is capable of scoring in bunches and sees the floor exceptionally well on the run. Those qualities help offset his defensive shortcomings.
Other Key Returnees
Wing guard Jerel Allen could be the key to coach Leonard Hamilton's puzzle. The team's best perimeter defender, Allen recently rediscovered his three-point accuracy. Forward Uche Echefu is more fundamentally sound and athletic -- and has a better shooting stroke -- than his predecessor, Alexander Johnson, but Echefu is not a post scorer. The growth of point guard Ralph Mims as a floor leader will be instrumental against teams that force a half-court style. Long and wiry, forward Casaan Breeden offers another awkward matchup on the perimeter, with the ability to knock down three-pointers or get to the glass.
No newcomer in Hamilton's five seasons has heightened expectations more rapidly than transfer guard Toney Douglas. The former Auburn star came to FSU to learn how to become a point guard, and he has held that job from opening day. His ability to get to the basket and finish, as well as push the ball in transition, make him the team's second most important player. The arrival of forward Ryan Reid was delayed for a year by academics, but his presence was felt immediately. A rugged rebounder with a high hoops IQ, he will take charges, set screens and find ways to contribute offensively when necessary. When Hamilton settled on a nine-man rotation, guards Josue Soto and Aaron Holmes were designated for redshirts.
ALSO Worth Noting
With Johnson's departure leaving FSU without a true back-to-the-basket post presence, Hamilton has fiddled with his offensive system. Look for more on-the-ball screens and drives to the basket, as the coaches try to maximize the team's perimeter athleticism. ... After years of struggling at the offensive end, the Seminoles finished fourth in the ACC in scoring (and the standings) last season, with a healthy 76.7 average. They will try to push that number higher by creating a more fervent pace, perhaps by extending pressure. ... Don't expect Hamilton to reduce his nine-man rotation, including five guards. Three players -- Douglas, Mims and Swann -- can get the Seminoles into their offense, which provides a lot of diversity and should take some pressure off Douglas. ... Douglas is the first FSU guard with the ability to beat defenders off the dribble and finish consistently since Sam Cassell.
Chart By: The FSU Insider