Leonard Hamilton's task heading into the fourth season of his tenure at Florida State bears striking resemblance to the challenge he faced last November.
Blending the old with the new, the 18-year coaching veteran will strive to find the best way to meld the talent that three consecutive stellar recruiting crops have brought to Tallahassee with a host of holdovers.
Roles and rotations must be defined; the chemistry is already starting to build.
"Something that I am excited about right now is their morale and their camaraderie," Hamilton said. "They seem to like playing together. They seem to have a better understanding of the concept of team and the sacrifices that you have to make in order to get better."
Getting better has been on the minds of those who comprise the Florida State basketball program and the fans who follow the hardwood Seminoles ever since Hamilton was handed the keys during in the spring of 2002.
Strides were made in years one and two – an NIT bid in 2004 included – but the Seminoles took a step in the wrong direction with a 12-19 effort last season. Arguably the most talented roster that Hamilton has had to work with, the Seminoles dropped 13 of 17 games to close the season after surprising Florida 81-69 in early January.
The enigmatic Seminoles also pulled out a stunning overtime victory against fifth-ranked Wake Forest, and chalked up their first ACC road win in nearly three years at the expense of N.C. State. But those highs were offset by head-scratching low points in defeats to Florida International, Texas A&M-Corpus Christi and Kent State.
"We are going to have to do a better job being consistent," Hamilton said. "We cannot allow ourselves to get too high after a win or too low after a defeat."
On-court direction was a contributing factor to those irregularities – the 2004-05 Seminoles never found a consistent replacement for the leadership that departed when Tim Pickett graduated.
Taking over his number and his spot at the two-guard, Von Wafer sparred with coaches and was benched on several occasions before declaring for the NBA Draft in April.
"The continuity and ability to play together as a team just wasn't there," forward Al Thornton said. "We were and (still) are very talented but – that's it – the chemistry, that's where we have to grow at. We need to get everyone on the same page."
Thornton, who exploded onto the scene last season after a double-double performance on the road against Maryland, was arguably FSU's most consistent offensive threat. He cracked the starting lineup for good after a 26-point effort against Wake.
"I felt like I proved myself as a scorer," Thornton said. "This year, I want to be more consistent through all of the games. Last year, I would play well for a game or two then fall off. I want coach to know that he is going to get this and this and this out of me instead of the ups and the downs."
He'll be joined in the frontcourt by junior Alexander Johnson, who will strive to put a sophomore slump in his wake, and reprise the form that earned him a spot on the All-ACC freshman team.
Both are poised for the mental rigors that come with playing in the ACC.
"I was weak-minded last year," Johnson said. "I've gotten a lot stronger mentally. I just have to keep my head up when things aren't going my way and stay focused on being a leader for this team. Last year we had no kind of leadership.
"When things get tough, I just want to try and pick the other guys up because two guys breaking down can hurt the whole team."
Stats and draft status are no concern of his.
"Nobody's thinking about themselves anymore," Johnson said. "Everybody wants to win as a team; no one is thinking about leaving or going to the league or anything like that this year. Our minds are going to be more of a strength. We are a little older than we were last year and I think our attitudes are little better. Everyone wants to get better and everyone wants to buy into the system."
Newcomers Jerel Allen, Uche Echefu and Casaan Breeden face the task of picking up Hamilton's system, as well as buying into it. A big man with a polished offensive game, Echefu might make the biggest impact because the system he ran in high school resembles the motion scheme Hamilton favors. Allen torched opponents for 17.2 points per game at a Detroit area community college last winter. Breeden's versatility will get him minutes at both forward spots and the two-guard.
Two other players – freshman Ryan Reid and Auburn transfer Toney Douglas – are in the fold but won't contribute until next season. Reid won't enroll in classes until January and Douglas must sit out a year due to NCAA transfer regulations after an all-SEC freshman campaign with the Tigers.
The Seminoles return a trio of seniors on the roster in Todd Galloway, Diego Romero and Andrew Wilson, who will continue to provide guidance to super sophomores Isaiah Swann, Jason Rich and Ralph Mims.
This diverse group got an early crack at building some bonds when the team traveled to Trinidad and Tobago to play four exhibition games this September. The Seminoles were a perfect 4-0 against club teams from the area and also received an extra week of supervised practice leading up to the trip.
"It was a great experience for us," Hamilton said. "It gave us an opportunity to evaluate our new players, which was obviously good for us, and it also gives you a chance to concentrate on two or three areas of your game that you normally wouldn't get a chance to that early in the year."
Things will crank up again for the Seminoles on Nov. 13 when they host Delta State in their season opener. The first test comes four games into the season when the Seminoles will tangle with Florida in Gainesville on Nov. 25, the night before the schools meet on the gridiron.
"We can't wait," Thornton said. "We have a lot to prove. Last year we had a lot of negativity. We're closer now. Our spirit is going to better."
Added Johnson: "We'll be alright because it doesn't get any worse than last year. I can't get any worse than last year. The only thing we can do is go forward."
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