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Basketball Garners Offseason Optimism

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

  June 2, 2003 TALLAHASSEE — The sound of sports in June at Florida State usually revolves around the football program, as preseason publications begin to hit the newsstands, with the Seminoles listed among the favorites to contend for another title.

While there is a level of optimism that FSU will rebound from last season's 9-5 mark, the majority of the football noise is the drone of the ongoing legal proceedings of former quarterback Adrian McPherson. Outside of that, the most commotion is reserved for Mike Martin's baseball team, which recently began a run at its 19th College World Series appearance, which is more than any program without a national championship.

Not since Sam Cassell, Doug Edwards & Co. were making noise in FSU's first two ACC seasons, more than a decade ago, has the men's basketball program registered anything more than a groan at this time of the year. But 15 months after Leonard Hamilton was hired to replace Steve Robinson, muted optimism has been replaced with the sweet sound of future success.

“We're all singing out of the same hymn book,” Hamilton said recently, crediting the strength of a veteran coaching staff for landing one of the most impressive recruiting classes in school history.

After the recent addition of 6-9, 235-pound prep forward Alexander Johnson, FSU is tuning up for what many expect will be a break-through season on the court. Hamilton's second signing class included two of the nation's top 30 high school prospects — wing Von Wafer and Johnson — and juco standouts Diego Romero and Antonio Griffin. Al Thornton, the Georgia high school player of the year in 2002, also will be ready for action in the fall after enrolling in January. Rivals.com ranked the incoming group No. 1 in the nation.

The arrivals of five potential impact players, to a team that returns eight of its top 10 scholarship players, has Hamilton & Co. looking forward to the upcoming season.

“Depth was a real issue,” Hamilton said of 2002-03, when the Seminoles finished 14-15 overall but were competitive on most nights. “Fatigue was the culprit in a lot of situations.” With added depth, Hamilton figures the Seminoles will be able to go 10-deep with ACC-quality players, affording his team the opportunity to “play with a little more reckless abandon on defense.”

Externally, the excitement is equally high. Two independent websites covering FSU sports recently reported getting an unusually high level of traffic to their basketball pages. And the hoops message boards — virtually empty, aside from Fire Robinson strings, before last season — are buzzing about Hamilton's recruiting coup and the prospects for an upper-division finish in the ACC. It has been a decade since the Seminoles finished with a winning record in the league, but fans are openly talking about a top-four finish and an NCAA Tournament berth.

Hamilton's first season saw the Seminoles improve their average home attendance by more than 1,000 fans, albeit to a still-embarrassing 6,384 per game. But ticket inquiries already are on the upswing for the coming season.

“We're still cognizant of the fact that, as much improvement as we had (last season), we still finished ninth in the league,” Hamilton said. “I'm confident that we're moving in the right direction, but I still feel like we have a lot of work to do.”

Hart's Future Under Microscope

Eight years after his hiring, FSU athletic director Dave Hart still hasn't won over significant supporters in high places, despite dramatic upgrades to facilities, the securing of quality coaches and an almost program-wide improvement on the field and in the classroom.

Hart, however, is taking a beating in some corners over the way the athletic department handled the McPherson case. And it hasn't helped his cause that standouts such as Chris Rix, Darnell Dockett and Travis Johnson all were in the headlines for the wrong reasons over the past six months.

The perception of a department in disarray was enough to force new FSU president T.K. Wetherell to seek a pair of independent investigations of how Hart's department does its business. The results of those internal studies figure to be a primary topic of discussion when the university's board of trustees convenes its meeting on June 13. At least one board member would love to see Hart move on.

While rumblings of a rift between Hart and Wetherell surfaced shortly after the president took office in January, that may be overstating the case. Wetherell has been impressed with Hart on many fronts, particularly his high-level involvement in the ACC's expansion pursuits.

A number of people close to both men said Wetherell's biggest bone of contention with Hart is his contract, which ranks among the best in the nation and is loaded with amenities, including a golden parachute at its end. Hart's contract was signed by former president Sandy D'Alemberte, who hired him and essentially gave him free rein over the athletic department.

Wetherell, a standout defensive back/receiver for the Seminoles in the mid-1960s (Bobby Bowden was his position coach at the time), is a hands-on president with a great deal of interest in athletics. That interest has a number of people in the department walking on eggshells and worrying about their job security.

It's difficult to envision a scenario in which Wetherell and the board would ask Hart to step down, but don't be surprised if some changes are requested from the top. Replacing or reassigning some athletic department personnel may be one of those requests. Asking Hart to renegotiate his contract might be another.

How it will play out will begin to unfold at the board of trustees meeting. Coincidentally, that will be held one week after McPherson's trial on a misdemeanor gambling charge is expected to conclude.

Ring Re-Sales Another Concern

FSU's compliance office has yet to suspend sophomore defensive end Willie Jones Jr. for selling his ACC championship ring, which was subsequently re-sold on e-Bay by a Tallahassee sports memorabilia shop. While the re-sale of the ring apparently is a secondary NCAA violation, FSU did not follow the lead of Georgia, which immediately suspended nine players for selling rings and jerseys over the internet.

An unidentified second current FSU football player also may be subject to sanctions after his title ring also was re-sold over the internet. School officials had not been advised by the NCAA to suspend the players. That, however, may not be a good sign.

Compliance director Bob Minnix was conducting an internal investigation into the long-standing relationship between the sports memorabilia shop owners — Seminole Boosters members Brian and Reagan Hobbs — and FSU athletes. The Hobbs brothers, sons of former Booster executive Ron Hobbs, also are the owners of R&R Truck Accessories. That's the store where McPherson allegedly stole, forged and had a blank check cashed for $3,500 in November. His subsequent arrest and dismissal from the team sparked a police investigation into gambling allegations.

R&R has had long-standing relationships with past and current Seminoles, many of whom have participated in autograph signings or promotions for the store. McPherson's attorney, Grady C. Irvin Jr., alleges that prominent FSU athletes have been trading autographs and memorabilia for cash through the store for many years.

FSU contacted the NCAA about Irvin's allegations and the subsequent internal investigation, and it's certainly possible that the folks from Indianapolis will pay a visit to Tallahassee after they finish their investigation in Athens.

Carr: Friend Of The Program?

Associate athletic director Charlie Carr, a one-time football/baseball standout at North Carolina, has been the man charged with overseeing FSU's baseball program for the last eight years. It's a job he enjoys, even if one occasionally can catch him pounding a fist or shaking his head over an error or a loss.

Carr added another job to his resume this year, as the NCAA's baseball committee chairman, where his most important job was overseeing the selection and seeding of the 64-team postseason field.

In late May and early June, however, it was FSU fans who were pounding fists and shaking heads over Carr and the committee's tournament selections this season. The Seminoles earned the nation's No. 1 seed for the second consecutive year, but they certainly earned no preferential treatment for that distinction.

FSU somehow drew one of the toughest regional fields. South Alabama (No. 17 RPI) was the No. 2 seed in Tallahassee, followed by Big East runner-up Rutgers and Jacksonville, which closed the season by winning eight of 10 games, including two at Miami.

Should FSU get out of the regional, it likely will meet defending champion Texas in the super regional round, albeit in Tallahassee. What makes that pairing hard to swallow is that Carr admitted the Longhorns were very nearly one of the tournament's top eight seeds out of 16. So instead of the No. 1 seed (FSU) drawing the tournament's No. 16 seed, it likely will face No. 9 instead. That won't be viewed as an equitable matchup, should it occur.

FSU players and coaches managed to publicly hold their tongues after the pairing announcements, but you can expect some sort of outburst if the team is eliminated early. And if the Seminoles advance to Omaha for the first time since 2000, they could draw long-time nemesis Miami in the opening game.

Nice bracket.