Shortly following the conclusion of FSU's loss to eventual National Champion Maryland in the ACC tournament and four straight losing seasons, the decision had to be made. Despite the many fine behind the scenes things Steve Robinson did to solidify the basketball program, the record could not justify keeping Robinson for the remainder of his contract. On March 19, FSU Athletic Director Dave Hart made the somewhat surprising announcement that he had hired Leonard Hamilton.
Hamilton had been out of basketball one year following just one season with the Washington Wizards. Taking time to be with his family, Hamilton still kept up with the college scene and realized the fire to coach again was still there. Assessing his options, FSU was the only job he seriously considered. And he will have quite a job to do to rebuild a program that has been to the NCAA tournament just once in the last 10 years. However, he comes to the Noles' with a track record of turning around floundering programs. Oklahoma State with two straight NIT appearances and Miami reaching the Sweet Sixteen improving on his three straight NCAA appearances are his credentials.
Coach Hamilton quickly assembled his staff; people he had worked with at Miami, and promptly hit the recruiting trail. Already blessed with a Top 100 player in point guard Todd Galloway, who Robinson had signed, Hamilton signed forward Al Thorton and St Petersburg playground legend swingman Benson Callier within one month after his arrival. Thornton however only partially qualified and will reportedly enroll at FSU in January. Hamilton said of Callier, a noted athletic leaper and a player that can slash to the hoop, that he was the most ready to contribute on the floor of all his first year recruits.
With the graduation of FSU assists record holder Delvon Arrington and not wanting to put enormous pressure on the incoming freshman Galloway, Moberly Area CC point guard Nate Johnson was signed. A player that can run a quick tempo offense while committing few mistakes also had the benefit of playing for a former Miami assistant of Leonard's at MACC. That gives FSU a player at a key position that has a familiarity with Hamilton's system as well as some needed experience at the collegiate level.
With his recruits in hand and still more available scholarships to fill the roster, FSU found itself with even more spaces to fill. Backup point guard Ryan Lowery's chronic knee problems forced him to quit the game. Big man Nigel Dixon realized he would not fit into the running style Hamilton prefers and transferred to Western Kentucky. Then shooting guard J.D. Bracey transferred to a JUCO when he encountered academic problems.
With only Andrew Wilson, who took a medical redshirt last season for an injured knee, available at the two spot, Hamilton reached into the JUCO ranks again and signed former South Carolina signee Tim Pickett. Known as an outstanding three-point shooter, this hopefully gives the Seminoles the perimeter shooting that Hamilton admitted did not exist on the squad he inherited.
Michael Joiner (7.8 ppg) is the lone returning starter from last year's squad. Joiner, for various reasons, experienced the sophomore slump and at times disappeared in games. However, the slimmed down Joiner seems to be re-energized and is anxious to improve upon the form he displayed in his freshman year. Along with Joiner, other returnees include forward Anthony Richardson. Richardson, although inconsistent at times, displayed a brilliant athletic ability and should fit into Hamilton's running system quite well.
Mike Mathews, Trevor Harvey, and Adam Wasleskowski man the baseline. Mathews, the team's leading shot blocker, will need to be more aggressive on the boards now that Dixon, the team's leading rebounder, has departed. Harvey is a greyhound fits into the Hamilton system nicely. Both display a good touch around the basket particularly Mathews with his half hook shot. The toughness factor lies in Wasleskowski. As a freshman last season, Adam showed a physicality indicating he is not afraid to do the dirty work and get his nose bloodied.
Rounding out the roster is walk-on point guard Marcell Haywood. With the additions of Johnson and Galloway, Haywood will probably see a decline in his five plus minutes per game he played last year. In addition it appears that once football season is completed, backup quarterback Adrian McPherson will join the team. The former Mr. Basketball in Florida played in just three games last season before quitting to concentrate on football.
Heading into the season with just ten scholarship players will mean the Noles' could be out manned at times. Hamilton hopes to counter that and rely on a strong conditioning program and defense down the stretch of close games. The entire team went to work on conditioning almost immediately following the hiring of Hamilton. Mandatory workouts were required and the players responded very well to the new regimen. Joiner for example has lost about 15 pounds and Mathews has added some needed muscle.
As for when the season finally begins, who knows what will happen for FSU. Florida State is predicted to finish at the bottom of the ACC by many publications. Hamilton often says his starting lineup consists of a point guard and four other players. With Johnson the only player virtually assured of a starting spot, Hamilton will attempt to install the up-tempo offensive style he prefers and fit what he has into that system. Does he have the personnel in place to do that? Not quite yet. But early practice reports have indicated that Hamilton and the staff are quite pleased with the progress of the team. A lot has been thrown at them, but the fundamentals appear to be sinking in.
And that is where the conditioning will play a major role with a running team. Hamilton is quick to tell you where his team finished in the category of field goal percentage. In his last three years, Miami finished in the top ten twice and eighteenth the remaining year. That will be the focus for the Seminoles this year. Playing solid hard-nosed team defense for forty minutes and nothing less will be acceptable. Despite the short bench, FSU has just enough athleticism to maybe just pull off an upset or two should the team adapt to Hamilton's philosophies quickly. Opponents would be wise not to take the Seminoles lightly.
A brand new energy has been infused in all aspects of the program. Some early success, and a favorable schedule could instill some major confidence into a team that at times hung its head last season. The schedule has the Seminoles playing at home for their first eight games of the season and sixteen overall at the Civic Center.
The honeymoon period has begun. Hamilton knows very well how fast honeymoons end. He has stated that the team is undefeated. Right now anyway. And fans are anxious for a winning program. When asked when that will happen, Hamilton said if he knew that, he would be "counting his money on the 30th floor of his office tower."
With the moves he has made so far, it is a strong indication that he wants to win quickly, but also build a program the right way. Already Hamilton has verbal commitments for his 2003 recruiting class from two highly ranked JUCO players and another from Vakaeton Wafer listed as the second best shooting guard in the country according to Athlon magazine.
So, the components seem to be falling into place and optimism abounds that FSU will pull itself into the upper tier of the ACC. Time will tell. But, with the enthusiasm and work ethic Hamilton has brought to the entire program, from players down to office staff, the program is off to a promising start.