The Hamilton Era

<b>Leonard Hamilton</b> has no illusions. He takes over a FSU basketball program that has become one of the weakest in the Atlantic Coast Conference. Interest has waned. The talent level has dipped. Despite the hardships, Hamilton refuses to be discouraged. FSU and Hamilton embark on a new era as the Seminoles open their exhibition season Sunday. "This is who I am. I spent a year away from it, but I realized how much I missed it. I realized I'm just a basketball coach," Hamilton said.

Leonard Hamilton has no illusions.

He knows Florida State's basketball program is in poor shape. Over the past four years, FSU has become one of the Atlantic Coast Conference's weakest programs in basketball. Interest has waned. The talent level has dipped. FSU has turned into an easy mark for opponents, home and away.

Still, Hamilton refuses to be discouraged. He says his job is to rebuild the passion for the Seminoles' program. To restock talent. Hamilton has worked such miracles as a program builder at Oklahoma State and Miami.

Can he duplicate that process here in Tallahassee?

"This is like the Renaissance period, because it's like we've been born again,'' said forward Michael Joiner, one of the main players Hamilton needs to help the rebirth. "It's like night and day. I walk around town, go to class, and people are actually coming up to me saying how excited they are for basketball season. Those are words I've never heard before here.''

FSU and Hamilton embark on a new era beginning Sunday at the Tallahassee-Leon County Civic Center.

Sure, the Seminoles face Team Nike in an exhibition, but it still represents a new start. For the first time in a decade, people speak of hope, promise and a bright future ahead for the Seminoles. FSU will play host to the EA Sports All-Stars in its second preseason game Nov. 17 and open its regular season at home agaist Savannah State Nov. 24. The Seminoles will play their first eight games of the regular season at home, including matchups against Iowa (Dec. 2), Florida (Dec. 6) and Miami (Dec. 8).

Hamilton says the Seminoles must play with focus and determination to be successful each time they step on the court.

"There have been moments in practice where guys have made enough plays to give me an idea of what their potential will be,'' Hamilton said.

"We have only 10 players on scholarship (plus five walkons). We have very little room for error. In order for us to win games, we've got to win them by committee. I think we have enough pieces that if it's in-sync and working together, it could be more effective than what people might think.''

It's not expected to be easy or happen overnight.

FSU finished next to last in the ACC last season and lost four starters and a top reserve. While Hamilton did some fancy scrambling to fill the talent gap, he got a late start and isn't bringing in the kind of talent -- on paper -- that league foes such as Duke, UNC and Maryland have signed. Additionally, the Seminoles were a last-place pick of media at the ACC's "Operation Basketball'' gathering last week in Greensboro, N.C. It's the first time since they joined the league that the Seminoles were predicted to hit bottom.

Such talk doesn't phase Hamilton.

Last March, eight days after firing Steve Robinson, whose five-year tenure (64-86) resulted in steady decline, FSU Director of Athletics Dave Hart introduced Hamilton with a five-year, $3.87-million contract that made him the highest-paid basketball coach in school history.

Three months later, Hamilton's new staff moved into a three-story, $10-million practice and training facility adjacent to the Civic Center. Former UNLV coach Jerry Tarkanian took a tour and said he had never seen anything like it, even at the NBA level.

Hamilton has worked nonstop since his arrival. As part of his whirlwind schedule, Hamilton has met with FSU boosters, donors and students, trying to rekindle some more ticket buyers. Of course, he also hit the recruiting trail in a big way.

The Seminoles are poised on Wednesday to sign their best early-signing class in school history. The three players already committed, headlined by 6-5 swingman Vakaeton "Von'' Wafer of Cleveland, Texas -- a consensus Top 10 player -- could provide the Seminoles with a Top 5 national recruiting class.

"Leonard will do a great job,'' said Virginia coach Pete Gillen, who coached against Hamilton in the Big East Conference when Hamilton turned Miami from being downtrodden to perennial Top 25. "He's going to make my life more miserable. Leonard is hard to get to know. He really doesn't let you get to know him too well. But he's like that guy in a foxhole, hunkered down with a saber in his hip pocket, ready to use it anytime.''

Hamilton's energy, his proven credentials, his current recruiting efforts and the visible changes to this team are reasons to believe the Seminoles are ready for an uprising. He points to the success the program enjoyed under Pat Kennedy and Hugh Durham as reasons why the Seminoles can win again.

"I believe we just need to rekindle the fire,'' Hamilton said. "I'm not real sure we have to cut the tree down, dry the wood and start a fire. I think we just have to rekindle it. Because there is a lot of rich tradition that exists in our community and a lot of basketball fans here in Tallahassee. ... We think we can be better than some people think we're going to be, but that's where we are. We have a chance to go out and earn respect. You don't have to be concerned with where you are predicted or what people say about you.''

THE LINEUP

Hamilton did inherit one proven ACC player in the 6-foot-7 Joiner (7.8 ppg, 4.7 rpg), who has 53 starts in two seasons. He made the ACC All-Rookie team as a freshman and continued his solid play last season as sophomore. Joiner, who was passed over by the schools on Tobacco Road despite a stellar high school career at Fayetteville (N.C.) 71st High School, had 12 points and seven rebounds in FSU's monumental upset of No. 1 Duke last January. He had 15 points and five rebounds in FSU's ACC Tournament victory over Clemson.

Sophomore Anthony Richardson (7.2 ppg, 3.6 rpg) is expected to be another impact player for Hamitlon. He ranked among the Seminole leaders in blocked shots, steals, assists and 3-pointers made -- despite playing just 17.6 minutes a game as a freshman. The 6-foot-8, 190-pounder was a McDonald's All-American at Leesville Road High School in Raleigh, N.C. Richardson celebrated his homecoming last season with a 19-point, 6-rebound effort at N.C. State.

Both Joiner and Richardson should fit nicely into the system that Hamilton is planning to install at FSU. He favors a flexible floor game without traditional positions. That suits Joiner, who's kind of a combination of a power forward and a wing forward, and Richardson, whose game doesn't really fit any traditional position.

"In our system, we only have one position -- point guard," Hamilton said. "A point guard and four players."

Hamilton must replace a number of familiar faces.

Point guard Delvon Arrington, shooting guard Antwuan Dixon and small forward Monte Cummings were seniors who used their eligiblity. The fourth player, Nigel Dixon, was encouraged to leave by Hamilton, after Dixon wanted use a redshirt season. Reserve guard J.D. Bracey also transferred due to academic concerns.

Arrington's departure represents the largest void. He was a four-year starter at the point, the program's career leader in assists and he averaged almost 34 minutes a game last season. Hamilton is looking to freshman Todd Galloway (16.5 ppg, 7.5 apg at Notre Dame Academy in Virginia) to step in and help lead the Seminoles.

But Galloway won't have to run the show by himself as a freshman. One of the first things Hamilton did after taking the FSU job was to go out and land a junior college point guard. He signed 6-foot-4 Nate Johnson (10.2 ppg, 7.3 apg at Moberly Area Community College in Missouri). Johnson could end up starting in the backcourt with another juco recruit. Late in the summer, Hamilton landed 6-foot-4 Tim Pickett, who averaged 21.0 points and 6.1 rebounds at Indian River (Fla.) Community College.

With "Big Jelly" gone, the Seminoles will hope seniors Mike Mathews and Trevor Harvey, both of whom have lean, basketball bodies, can handle the post area. Mathews is the top returning shot blocker in the ACC and is within range of the FSU career record in that category Harvey is the fourth-best returning shot blocker in the ACC. Both are familiar to Hamilton from his days at Miami. Hamilton also will give 6-foot-8, 230-pound sophomore Adam Waleskowski (2.9 ppg, 2.4 rpg) plenty of time in the post.

"I haven't watched this team a lot, but I did recruit Trevor and Mike," Hamilton said. "Both have displayed a tremendous attitude, a real hunger to get better. For instance, Mike has added 18 pounds since last season, the result of hard work in the weight room."

On the wing, Benson Callier (18.0 ppg, 10.0 rpg at a prep school in Pennsylvania) didn't have much prep hype, but Hamilton likes the athleticism. Additionally, Andrew Wilson returns after missing last season with a knee injury. He averaged 4.3 points a game as a freshman in 2001 and was regarded as one of the team's best shooters, despite a woeful shooting percentage of .336.

Hamilton could get a midseason infusion of talent on the wing if sophomore Adrian McPherson (1.7 ppg) rejoins the basketball team after football season. The former Florida Mr. Basketball played briefly last season for Robinson before quitting to concentrate on football. McPherson's decision could be impacted by his emergence as the Seminoles' starter at quarterback.

The bottom line, however, is obvious for all to see. Hamilton has no illusions.

Hamilton realizes the Seminoles must get better talent before they can compete every night in the ACC. "We haven't done anything yet. We're still ranked the ninth-best team in a nine-team league,'' said Hamilton. But don't be fooled. Hamilton can't wait to get started. After a failed season as coach of the Washington Wizards (19-63), he realized how much he missed college basketball.

Now he's back in the mix.

"This is who I am,'' he said. "I spent a year away from it, but I realized how much I missed it. I realized I'm just a basketball coach.''


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