Wednesday, February 25, 2009
Elusive bid within reach for FSU
CHESTNUT HILL, Mass. -- Leonard Hamilton has been here before, on the verge of earning an NCAA tournament berth with Florida State, confident that the Seminoles won't be disappointed.
And nothing has changed. Despite failing to get a bid since he arrived in Tallahassee in 2002, Hamilton's confidence won't flutter.
The No. 25 Seminoles lost at Boston College 72-67 on Tuesday night to drop to 8-5 in the ACC, 21-7 overall. Yet, the head coach's confidence isn't shaken.
"The good thing about our team is that I believe we haven't even scratched the surface of our potential," Hamilton said. "I'm encouraged by this team and confident we'll be ready by our next game [against Clemson] and make the NCAA tournament."
He might be right. The Seminoles are in their best position to make the field since Hamilton arrived despite being his most inexperienced team. Remember, this is a program that had Al Thornton for four years in Tallahassee but couldn't get to the Dance. Florida State was 9-7 for fifth place in the ACC in 2005-06 and didn't get a bid.
But this season might be different. Finally, for Hamilton, for the first time in seven seasons, he might have the overall body of work that will be hard to ignore. Florida State won on a neutral court against potential NCAA teams Cincinnati and Cal in Las Vegas in November. The Seminoles beat rival Florida, another potential NCAA team, at home. The loss at Northwestern in the ACC-Big Ten Challenge looked bad in December but better now that the Wildcats have won at Michigan State and beaten Ohio State (and should have taken out Purdue and Illinois at home too). Losing to Pitt at home in an eight-point game that was in play in the final two minutes is hardly a knock.
Playing well in the ACC with wins at Clemson and Virginia Tech proves the Seminoles aren't a home team only.
Still, there is a stigma attached to Hamilton at this school that he needs to shake.
Hamilton did get to the NCAAs after he resurrected Miami. He went to the NBA to coach Michael Jordan's Washington Wizards, had no shot with a roster without stars, and returned to college once he was fired. The expectation was he would get Florida State to the NCAAs in a short cycle. He hasn't. It has been seven years and the Seminoles have constantly had underachieving problems for some reasons that were out of his control.
In 2007, losing Alexander Johnson to the NBA draft when he didn't expect it crushed Hamilton's recruiting since he didn't have another front-line player for the next season. Auburn transfer Toney Douglas missed five ACC games in the 2007 season with a broken hand. That team finished 7-9 and tied for eighth place in the ACC. A season ago, Florida State had no shot. Big man Solomon Alabi played only nine games because of a stress fracture in his right leg. Isaiah Swann missed the final nine games after tearing ligaments in his left knee. Ryan Reid was suspended for nine games. Julian Vaughn, who ultimately transferred to Georgetown, missed three games while he was being treated for a heart condition. The Seminoles finished 7-9 yet again in the ACC, tied for seventh place.
Yet Douglas was prophetic in the fall. Douglas told ESPN.com that Florida State would be an NCAA team. He reiterated that again during Wednesday's ESPNU college basketball podcast. Douglas was convinced he would have a breakout season and he has at 20.5 points a game. He said, and Hamilton concurred, that the Seminoles had an impressive, long group of big men in the improving Alabi, who could turn into a dominating post player at both ends, and Chris Singleton and Uche Echefu, who add different variables as scorers and defenders in the post. And the addition of one-time St. John's player in Derwin Kitchen on the wing gave the Seminoles another strong, scoring guard next to Douglas.
"The most frustrating thing is that we haven't had, until this season, the team that I put together at the end of the season," Hamilton said of the various injuries and attrition. "It wasn't that I was frustrated, just disappointed."
Hamilton has mellowed since his NBA experience. He doesn't seem to get moved by pressure or even chatter about his job status. The setbacks of missing out on the NCAAs, especially the 9-7 2006 season and not having his full team the previous two seasons, kept him motivated.
"I took the high road and didn't worry [about his job]," Hamilton said. "For me personally, this is what I expect to do. There has been misfortune. But if you look at my career, I've always taken over programs that needed fixing up. I know I work for good people and always had a good relationship."
Still, even though he was burned on Selection Sunday in 2006, waiting to get a bid and then not seeing Florida State's name hasn't left him shy about projecting the Seminoles into the field. He feels different about this team. The maturity has been there in the ACC. The Seminoles haven't lost two games in a row this season and Hamilton doesn't expect that to occur with Clemson up next.
"I know we have three more opportunities and we better take advantage of it," Hamilton said. "We haven't had any of those unfortunate basketball demons this season like we've had in the best. I expect our guys to bounce back. We just lost our focus [against Boston College]. We realize we're awfully young and have a tendency to play young and inexperienced at times."
But the bid has to come. The Noles are too close for it not to this season. Hamilton knows this and that's why he won't let his confidence slip. Still, the memory of 2006 lingers.
What bothered him in 2006 was to see teams that he said had worse strength of schedule than the Seminoles still make the field and advance.
"That was very difficult to deal with because I thought we earned the right to be there," Hamilton said. "It was very disheartening for our team. I didn't have an explanation. I didn't have anything to say to them that would comfort anyone."
He doesn't want to find those words again. This team is on the verge of a bid, his first at Florida State. And Hamilton is determined to ensure the Seminoles finally land one.
• Boston College's win over Florida State should get the Eagles into the NCAAs now that they've beaten three of the top five teams in the league in North Carolina, Duke and FSU. The only two they lost to were Clemson and Wake Forest (twice). The 20-9 Eagles (8-6 in the ACC) firmly believe they can get a top-four spot in the ACC tournament and receive a bye. But to do that they've got to win out at NC State and at home against Georgia Tech to finish 10-6, and then need Florida State and Wake Forest to lose. FSU (8-5) finishes with Clemson, at Duke and at home to Virginia Tech. Wake Forest (7-5) finishes with NC State, at Virginia, at Maryland and Clemson. Duke could also slide down a peg at 8-4 with games left at Maryland, at Virginia Tech, Florida State at home and at North Carolina.
• Josh Carter might look back on Tuesday night's 3-pointer at the buzzer as the shot that got Texas A&M into the NCAA tournament. The Aggies stayed alive for a bid with a 57-55 win over Nebraska. Texas A&M, which moved to 20-8 overall and 6-7 in the Big 12, has to likely win out against Iowa State, at Colorado and at home against Missouri. The Mizzou game will be extremely difficult and might be asking too much of the Aggies. But beating a team that could win the Big 12 title (this could spoil it for the Tigers and hand it to Kansas or Oklahoma) is the kind of home win the Aggies could use going into the Big 12 tournament to show they are a tourney-worthy team. Texas A&M knocked off Texas at home and its nonconference wins over Arizona at home and against LSU in Houston are two more chips for a bid.
• The Mountain West needed some separation to show its best teams to the NCAA committee. BYU did that somewhat in winning at San Diego State on Tuesday night. The 10-point win snapped the Aztecs' 10-game home winning streak and moved BYU up to 9-4 in the conference, sending San Diego State down to 8-5. The Aztecs don't have the nonconference wins to stand out and needed to do something special in the conference. UNLV, which is tied with SDSU at 8-5, has the win at Louisville. BYU owns a victory over Utah State and might get a look for its one-point loss to Arizona State at the buzzer after a shot wasn't counted that would have won the game for the Cougars. Beating first-place Utah at home Saturday could be paramount for the Cougs to get a bid after losing to Utah in overtime earlier in the season in Salt Lake City.
Utah has the best shot of getting in by itself with nonconference wins over Gonzaga and LSU (by 30). New Mexico is tied with BYU at 9-4 in the conference, but the Lobos missed out on early opportunities for a quality nonconference win by losing at Creighton. UNM's best win is over Ole Miss at home, so winning the regular-season title might be the only way for the Lobos. They still have a legit shot with a BYU win over Utah and then beating the Utes (10-2) themselves on March 3 at the Pit. Do that, and win road games at Colorado State and Wyoming, and the Lobos would have a real shot as co-champs of the Mountain West.
• Baylor's collapse as a Top 25 and potential NCAA team has been a free fall. The Bears lost at Iowa State on Tuesday to drop to 4-9 in the league, 16-11 overall and out of the NCAA tournament discussion.
• Back in September it was obvious to me that LSU had the most veteran talent in the SEC and a 30-point loss to Utah in Salt Lake City made it hard to think of the Tigers as the top team in the league. But the Tigers finally settled into Trent Johnson's system and Marcus Thornton has shined next to Tasmin Mitchell. Now, there's no question the Tigers are the class of the SEC with a 12-1 record, 24-4 overall, and 12 straight SEC wins.
• Creighton won at Missouri State to stay tied with Northern Iowa, which won on an Adam Koch tip-in at the buzzer at Illinois State. Both teams are 13-4 in the Missouri Valley. But Creighton, which has a nonconference win over Dayton (and New Mexico), played a tougher nonleague slate than UNI. If any team gets in as an at-large out of the Valley, it will be the Bluejays.