Oct. 12, 2011
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- It was so close, they could taste it.
This past March, the Florida State men's basketball team was just minutes away from a trip to the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament. The Seminoles had earned big wins over Texas A&M and Notre Dame in Chicago in the days prior and had the year's Cinderella squad, VCU, on the ropes in overtime.
But 7.9 seconds -- as the FSU players found out painfully -- is an eternity in sports.
The Rams wound up coming from behind to earn the win and end FSU's 2010-11 campaign. The loss stung then but Seminoles coach Leonard Hamilton says now that it was a true learning experience for his team as it enters a new season.
"I think they responded in an appropriate manner from the loss to VCU," Hamilton said. "I think that it was a very bitter taste in their mouth as to how we performed in that game. Not necessarily that we didn't play well we just left a very empty feeling in all of our minds that we could have played better. There were a lot of things that we self-inflicted ourselves and then we played a VCU team that played extremely well. They played extremely well and the issues we had were not in one particular player, it was just us as a team making a few mistakes here and a few mistakes there.
"We came away knowing that we came close and we have to come up with a way to make sure that we don't allow ourselves to feel that we could have done better."
For FSU, improving on last year's performance and building off a current streak of three consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances means dealing with the loss of key players Derwin Kitchen and NBA first-round selection Chris Singleton.
Together, Kitchen and Singleton registered the top-two scoring averages on the team last year at 10.4 and 13.1 points per game, respectively. They both played more minutes on average than any other member of the team and Singleton was one of the top defensive players in the entire nation.
Despite their absence on this year's roster, Hamilton is pleased with what the 'Noles have returning.
"I think we have an experienced group returning, six seniors, five juniors that we expect to get tremendous leadership from," Hamilton said. "I thought that we made progress last year in a lot of different areas and the biggest area that we made the most improvement was just understanding what we had to do to play at the highest level."
Hamilton will rely on that bevy of upperclassmen to keep the Seminoles at the 22-win clip that the program has averaged the last six seasons.
Luke Loucks, Deividas Dulkys and Xavier Gibson are the longest-tenured Seminoles while fellow seniors Bernard James and Jon Kreft are back for their second and final seasons in the garnet and gold. Hamilton and his coaching staff also added Iowa transfer Jeff Peterson, who has one final year of eligibility as a graduate student. Junior-college transfer Kiel Turpin -- all 6-foot-11 of him -- joins a junior class that features standout guard Michael Snaer and ever-improving forward Terrance Shannon.
Loucks and Peterson form an interesting duo at the point guard spot -- the position that Kitchen vacated when he graduated. Rising sophomore Ian Miller could also be in the mix when it comes to manning the point position for the 'Noles. Miller could also factor into the shooting guard rotation where Snaer has averaged 8.8 points per game over the course of his career.
Florida State also signed highly-touted freshman guard Terry Whisnant II, who brought instant offense with him from North Carolina to Tallahassee.
The Seminoles may miss Singleton at forward but James is on the verge of becoming a household name throughout the college basketball world after tuning himself into a pivotal player in his first season at FSU last year. The forward rotation is bolstered by Shannon, rising star Okaro White and talented freshman Antwan Space. Gibson can play the forward and center positions along with Turpin, James and Kreft.
"It is very difficult to single out any one particular player because they all have displayed tremendous attitude," Hamilton said. "They have all been in and out of the office and you always see their cars parked in the parking lot, and as you're leaving they're around all the time in the gym working on their game. You know that Bernard's attitude is a reflection of the entire team. That's what we are excited about."
And it's this grouping of players that has FSU fans everywhere excited about what the immediate future holds.
Florida State made it to the Sweet 16 last year for the first time since 1993 not solely because of Kitchen and Singleton but because of depth and talent across the board -- most of which is returning for another run.
This time around, the Seminoles know what it will take to close out those final 7.9 seconds.
"I think that what we learned from that is that it's the little things when it gets down to those final 16 teams, everyone is capable of winning the final four," Hamilton said. "It's the team that does all the things the best, the longest and the hardest that comes out on top."
The Seminoles can officially begin preparations for the upcoming season this Friday at the annual "Jam With Ham:" at Seminole Madness, which is the first practice of the year and first opportunity to for FSU fans to see the team.
The "Jam with Ham" at Seminoles Madness will feature a scrimmage, a dunk contest, a 3-point shooting contest and a free-throw shooting contest that will include Seminole fans in attendance at the Donald L. Tucker Center. Several great prizes will be given away throughout the night including flat screen TVs, computers and cash. There will be interactive games throughout Seminole Madness as well, where fans can answer live questions for valuable prizes.
The event gets started at 6 p.m. and is free.