Feb. 4, 2014
By Bob Thomas, Seminoles.com
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - February conference play often separates the haves from the have-nots when it comes to postseason appearances in college basketball.
Through the better part of three months Leonard Hamilton's Florida State team played like one of the "haves," but a late-January lapse as the calendar flipped to February has heightened the stakes for the Seminoles. FSU lugs the weight of a three-game Atlantic Coast Conference losing streak into tonight's home showdown against Virginia Tech (9 p.m., ACC Network).
The Seminoles (13-8, 4-5) can ill-afford a fourth consecutive setback, especially against a Virginia Tech team (8-13, 1-8) that is bringing up the rear in the ACC standings. FSU's challenge became even greater when Hamilton said Tuesday that the `Noles will be without senior guard and scoring leader Ian Miller, who suffered an ankle sprain in Saturday's 53-49 home loss to Clemson.
Still, don't throw a pity party for the Seminole just yet. Even without Miller, there are eight players on the roster who endured similar circumstances last season, when the team suffered through a series of highs and lows and gutted out an 18-16 campaign which included a 9-9 ACC mark.
"That definitely helps, especially going through last year," said sophomore guard Montay Brandon. "Last year was way worse compared to what we're going through now. We know what we need to do to try and get back over that hump to where we were earlier in the season.
"We just have to realize as a team that every play is important. There's always that one play that messes up. You go to the NC State game and there was that one box-out, or the Clemson game where it was one rebound, or, just playing better team defense. ... Those little things lead to wins or losses."
And therein lies the problem during FSU's current skid. There isn't one easily diagnosable shortcoming which has contributed to four losses in the last five league outings. Their maladies have run the gamut from poor shooting, ineffective offensive execution and defensive lapses to the inability to box out.
Hamilton hopes he caught a glimpse of his teams' determination to turn it around during Monday's practice session.
"If yesterday's practice is any indication, then our guys understand that we've all got to step it up," Hamilton said. "I'm encouraged. I thought our practice yesterday was very focused; one of our best practices of the year. I think they're sensing that little sense of urgency and we expect them to respond."
Hamilton's teams have demonstrated great resiliency over the years, largely avoiding extended losing streaks with victories, even when the odds seemed long. This squad will have the chance to do just that as well, beginning with the Hokies - the first of three ACC opponents over the next six days. FSU travels to Maryland Saturday and returns home to host Miami on Tuesday.
"Losing Ian is tough but we're just going to try to move forward," said sophomore guard Aaron Thomas, who like Miller and senior forward Okaro White, averages 12 points a game. "I'm just going to try and be myself and do what I can do. ... We know we have guys that can come in and bring things to the table."
Collectively, the `Noles have proven that with some impressive wins, including ACC road triumphs at Clemson and Miami.
Hamilton's biggest challenge won't be replacing Miller's offensive contributions. The `Noles had settled into a comfortable rotation with Miller and Thomas coming off the bench to spell starters Devon Bookert and Brandon. Altering that combination also has a trickle-down effect on playing rotations.
Brandon will get his first extensive work at point guard, behind Bookert, after working there a great deal last season. White will likely log fewer minutes at the power forward position and more at the small forward. Hamilton said he will ask for more contributions from forwards Robert Gilchrist and Jarquez Smith, but he is also prepared to spell his regulars with walk-ons Marquez White at the point, and swingmen Joell Hopkins and Brandon Allen.
"It's a little bit more of a challenge, but somebody else is going to have to step up and we'll have to maybe find a way to keep us as fresh as possible," Hamilton said. "We'll make the necessary adjustments. Sometimes it's just going to be going be a feel as opposed to trying to go into a game with a type of plan."
Brandon said he is ready to do, "whatever I've got to do to help us win games at this point in the season."
In the meantime, Hamilton would also like to see his team sharpen its skills in a few specific areas.
"We've got to make sure we attack a little bit better inside and we're going to need to get to the basket a little bit more off the dribble (and) try to get the foul line a little bit more," he said. "Right now we don't plan to change very much. We just hope some guys step up."
Well, there is one thing the `Noles are eager to change.
"When you lose three games in a row, it's now or never," Brandon said. "We need this game to get back going in the right direction."