Nov. 7, 2013
TALLAHASSEE, Fla. - Through two significant rounds of expansion, the footprint of the Atlantic Coast Conference has expanded significantly throughout Leonard Hamilton's tenure at the helm of the Florida State basketball program. So too has the Seminoles' profile as a member of arguably the finest college conference in the history of the game.
As the Seminoles launch their 12th season under Hamilton's watch Friday at home against Jacksonville (8 p.m., ESPN3), they bear little resemblance to the program that was in place when he took over prior to the 2002-03 season.
A self-avowed "fixer-upper," Hamilton has transformed the Seminoles into the "program of significance" he promised. How else would explain last season's modestly successful 18-16 mark, which included a 9-9 ACC record, despite the presence of seven first-year players?
"Last year we had seven first-year players," Hamilton said, on the eve of his 26th season as a Division I head coach. "This year we have seven second-year players, and five of them are sophomores. ... When we have been good, we've had a junior-senior team. I think our sophomores need to be mature and a lot farther along than most sophomore teams are to make a big difference in how successful we are."
Don't mistake Hamilton's comment for an excuse before the first jump ball is tossed into the air. In fact, he is quite excited about the potential of his 2013-14 roster, which was picked to finish ninth by the media in the new 14-team ACC which includes perennial postseason participants Syracuse, Pitt and Notre Dame.
"I know that this group has the makings of something I think I can be special," Hamilton said. "I have to hold everybody accountable, and at the same time allow myself to be patient, with the understanding that this team is moving in the right direction."
Hamilton cites two specific areas of improvement that he has seen his team collectively make since they left the floor after a first-round NIT loss to Louisiana Tech.
"Where we've improved the most is everybody individually has improved their skills," he said, rattling off a wide-ranging list of skills to go along with significantly-improved physical conditioning. "All of those things that require focus, attentiveness and hard work.
"I think they now they have a better understanding of the things we need to do offensively and defensively."
At the same time, Hamilton doesn't have any trouble spotting one area that figures to be a work in progress as the season unfolds:
"Understanding how we need to play to play to each other. That's a chemistry issue. I don't think we have kids who are selfish. I think we are still struggling as far as learning to play to each other."
To that end, the healthy return of sophomore point guard Devon Bookert and senior combo guard Ian Miller, could go a long way toward giving the Seminoles' new season an upward arc. Their injuries last season loomed large on a team that sorely lacked offensive cohesion and suffered through growing pains on the defensive end as well.
"Having Devon healthy will make a huge difference because he is really the only true point guard on the team," Hamilton said. "Then having Ian Miller healthy and him having a better understanding of how to be our second point guard, as well as a scoring guard, makes a huge difference on our team. ...
"Now it's a matter of us coming together as a team and learning how to play together. We can do that a lot better with two healthy guys."
Senior forward Okaro White, the team's top returning scorer (12.4 ppg) and rebounder (5.9 rpg), should be a direct benefactor of having Bookert and Miller operating at full speed, as the Seminoles will look to push the ball on offense in an effort to find easier scoring opportunities.
Defense, however, will remain the Seminoles' calling card, much as it has been throughout Hamilton's time in Tallahassee. FSU will once again boast ample length, with White, joining fellow seniors Robert Gilchrist and Kiel Turpin, sophomores Boris Bojanovsky and Michael Ojo and freshman newcomer Jarquez Smith in the frontcourt. Angular swingmen Montay Brandon and Aaron Thomas can create havoc on perimeter passing lanes as well.
And it's on the defensive end where the `Noles have perhaps the most room to grow. A year ago FSU surrendered 68.6 points a game, while allowing opponents to shoot .437 from the floor and .368 from 3-point range. Those numbers represent the most success Seminole opponents have enjoyed since a three-year stretch of NIT appearances (2006-2008).
"I think we've made tremendous growth, but we still have ways to go," said Hamilton, who has been encouraged by the progress shown in lopsided exhibition wins. "We're still trying to learn how to cover for each other. Our defense has always been a team defensive concept, as opposed to an individual defensive concept."
The process of putting all of the pieces together begins against Jacksonville.
"We need Okaro to lead in his own way," Hamilton said. "We need this team to be healthy. We're not quite as deep on the perimeter. ... I feel we have some big guys that are really, really coming. You can see the future is really bright for them, however, we need their future to be now."
KEYS TO SUCCESS