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Talent, Excitement Levels Rising In Hamilton's Second Season

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

By Josh Robbins
Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel

November 17, 2003 TALLAHASSEE — Tim Pickett walked through the center of the Florida State campus recently, wearing the road jersey of his favorite pro team, the Los Angeles Lakers, as well as socks with purple and yellow stripes. His outfit, coupled with his 6-4 frame, made him look like a basketball player. But the reality is that Pickett, a senior shooting guard, no longer needs to wear a Lakers jersey and matching socks to be recognized, even by football-crazy Seminoles fans. Strangers often approach him as he walks to class and ask if he is, indeed, Tim Pickett.

“Things like that just make me feel good that I came a long ways with basketball,” Pickett said. “A lot of people didn't know who I was when I first got here. Now, people are excited to meet me.”

In a one-year span, Pickett transformed himself from a relatively unknown junior college transfer into a campus celebrity. This season, Pickett and his fellow FSU basketball players hope to make a similar leap within the ACC: from a bunch of nobodies to a group of somebodies. Such a scenario may not be as farfetched as it seems.

Second-year coach Leonard Hamilton infused new life into the program last season and, buoyed by a gleaming new $10 million practice facility, also lured one of the country's top recruiting classes to Tallahassee. The Seminoles lost only one starter from last season's team, which posted a 14-15 overall record and a 4-12 league mark. And, of course, Pickett — the player who led the team in points (17.1), rebounds (5.7), minutes (33.1) and steals (2.8) per game — returns, too.

The news media have taken notice, selecting Pickett to the preseason all-conference team. Only two other Seminoles — Sam Cassell before the 1992-93 season and Bob Sura prior to the 1994-95 campaign — received that preseason distinction since the school joined the ACC in 1991.

“Tim has only scratched the surface of his potential,” Hamilton said. “There were times when we had to play him so many extended minutes … and I thought that really hurt him a little bit toward the end of the season. You can't play people those kind of minutes and expect them to last the whole season playing that way.”

As a team, Florida State has been picked to finish sixth in the ACC, which would be its best conference showing since 1999-2000.

“With this team, I really feel like the sky's the limit,” junior forward Anthony Richardson said.

That's bold talk around these parts. The Seminoles regularly play for non-existent crowds. They averaged a league-worst 6,384 fans per game last season, largely because they haven't fielded a winning team since 1997-98.

Richardson remembers that “no buzz” surrounded the basketball program when he arrived on campus as a freshman in 2001. Now, perceptions have started to change. The school has received 200 additional orders for season tickets since last year.

Pickett helped alter that perception with his style of play. He will not make rim-rattling, bring-down-the-house dunks, as Richardson does, but Pickett resembles a whirling dervish, especially on defense. The native of Daytona Beach, Fla., delights in hurdling courtside chairs and scorer's tables in pursuit of loose balls and usually returns to the court sporting an ear-to-ear grin.

“He has never had a bad-effort day since he's been here,” Hamilton said, “and that type of attitude is contagious and it rubs off on the other players.”

Small wonder, then, that Hamilton designated Pickett as the official mentor for prized freshman Von Wafer, a McDonald's All-American and the program's biggest recruit in years.

“I guess last year Coach was mentoring me,” Pickett said. “I didn't have anybody to really look up (to) and tell me what was right and wrong, which way to read my defenders. Now it's like Von's here, and it's like he's like my little brother.”

Wafer, a 6-5 swingman, easily possesses the best shooting touch on the team and rivals Richardson (the team's only other McDonald's All-American) in athleticism. Recruiting analysts consider Wafer the jewel of the incoming class, but there is other talent there: 6-10 forward Diego Romero, a junior college transfer, and
6-10 power forward Alexander Johnson, a freshman from Albany, Ga.

How do the newcomers feel about their time at FSU so far? Well, no one outside of the program, their friends and family really knows. As is his custom with first-year players, Hamilton refused to make Wafer, Romero and Johnson available to the media in the preseason.

“Right now, what can they say? They just put their shoes on and started practice,” Hamilton said. “I want to give them time to get into this system, learn exactly what we are doing and let's get away from making statements without a whole lot of meaning. What I have always done with freshmen, I have not wanted to give in to the hype that creates expectations that sometimes are so unfair to youngsters as they try to enter into a season.”

There's little doubt, however, that Wafer will provide the Seminoles with a second perimeter scoring threat to go along with Pickett. That should give senior point guard Nate Johnson, who has added muscle to his willowy frame, and sophomore point guard Todd Galloway added room to penetrate to the basket and dish off to forwards Michael Joiner, Adam Waleskowski, Al Thornton, Richardson, Johnson and Romero.

In the end, though, Pickett likely will remain the team's go-to player on offense, at least early in the season, and its best defender. That's not too shabby for a player who missed his entire sophomore season of high school and part of his senior year to academic difficulties.

After graduating from Mainland High in Daytona Beach, Pickett spent one year apiece at Daytona Beach Community College and Indian River Community College. Pickett signed with South Carolina out of Indian River, only to learn that he would be ineligible to play because of a Southeastern Conference rule mandating that junior college players must spend at least three consecutive semesters at their last school before transferring.

South Carolina coach Dave Odom called Hamilton to recommend Pickett, and Hamilton suddenly showed up at Pickett's door in Daytona Beach one summer day in 2002. The next day, Pickett signed with the Seminoles. Now, that rocky ride finally is paying dividends — for Pickett and for FSU.

“When I was small, I used to always dream about this: playing Division I ball. I just wanted to be somebody that people know around, not just home in Daytona,” Pickett said. “I'm just glad the hard work paid off and people recognize me in the ACC. I'm just trying to get more than that this year. I'm trying to do big things, and I'm just trying to make sure my teammates get better and they feed off me and I feed off them.”