No one would blame Leonard Hamilton and the Florida State men’s basketball team if they took some time to sit back and cherish the successes of the 2010-11 campaign. The Seminoles staked their claim as the third-best program in the ACC, behind only Duke and North Carolina, and they reached the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament (for the first time since 1992). Those are significant accomplishments for a Florida State program that had languished near the ACC cellar for several years before the Hamilton-led resurgence.
Yet, when talk in the Seminoles’ practice facility turns to last year, the general feeling is one of disappointment and frustration. “There was a certain amount of pain that these guys felt in the game that we lost,” Hamilton explains, referring to the Seminoles’ Sweet 16 defeat (in overtime) to VCU. “And that seems to be the driving factor.”
That motivation, combined with perhaps the most talented and experienced team he has fielded in his 10 years in Tallahassee, has Hamilton and his players believing that the coming season could be their best yet.
“Over the last six years, it’s generally accepted that we’re the third-winningest program in the ACC,” Hamilton says. “That’s fine if you are satisfied with being third. … We see no reason that we can’t be No. 1. We’re not going to be content with just being the third-winningest program in the ACC.”
Key Seminoles Stat: 51
It's been 51 years since a team in the ACC defended as well as Florida State did last season. The Seminoles led the nation in field goal percentage defense, as opponents shot 36.3 percent from the field.
There is no better indication of Hamilton’s ability to land quality big men than the fact that the Seminoles have had three frontcourt players selected in the last two NBA Drafts — forward Chris Singleton (first round, 2011), center Solomon Alabi (second round, 2010) and forward Ryan Reid (second round, 2010). And yet, this area remains the strength of the team.
Power forward Bernard James, who grabbed headlines initially because of his amazing personal story (he was a high school dropout who developed an affinity for basketball during six years in the Air Force), blossomed into a major force during the second half of the season. In only his third year of organized basketball, the junior college transfer finished the season with modest numbers (8.6 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 2.4 bpg), but he had some huge games down the stretch, including a double-double in the Seminoles’ NCAA Tournament upset of Notre Dame. And James’ teammates say he has shown even greater progress during offseason workouts and pickup games.
“His thing was never skill — it was getting to know the game,” senior shooting guard Deividas Dulkys says. “He hasn’t played a lot of competitive basketball. He’s getting so much better.”
“The leap you’re going to see in B.J. next year is gonna be tremendous,” senior guard Luke Loucks says. “It’s gonna be a whole different ballgame.”
FSU also returns 7-footer Jon Kreft and 6'11" Xavier Gibson at center, as well as several quality forwards, including emerging sophomore Okaro White.
As strange as it might sound, the Seminoles’ chances for another strong postseason could hinge upon the abilities of a point guard who will be playing for his third college in five years.
Former Iowa and Arkansas starter Jeff Peterson, who left each school after coaching changes, will be eligible to play immediately because he already has earned his bachelor’s degree. And with FSU’s uncertainties at the point — Derwin Kitchen graduated and there was no clear-cut replacement — Peterson will have an opportunity to step right in.
The Seminoles are loaded with experience in the backcourt, with Loucks, Dulkys, junior Michael Snaer and sophomore Ian Miller all returning. Miller might be the only one with star potential, though; he is an exceptional scorer but needs to improve his defense.
As experienced and talented as the Seminoles are, they clearly will have a tough time knocking North Carolina and Duke from their perch atop the ACC. The Tar Heels will be projected by many to win the 2012 national title, and the Blue Devils won’t be far behind. Yet Hamilton and his players insist they are closing the gap.
“I know a lot of our fans were excited about the Sweet 16,” Loucks says. “But we’re sitting back looking at it like, ‘Man, that could have been an NCAA championship — not a Sweet 16.’ A Sweet 16 is good, but in the end, we still haven’t won anything. We want a championship.”
ACC Prediction: 3rd
NCAA Tournament Prediction: Two & Out