Florida State might have its best team, but don’t tell Hamil­ton

The Washington Post Sunday - - COLLEGE BASKETBALL - John Fe­in­stein sports@wash­post.com For more by John Fe­in­stein, visit wash­ing­ton­post.com/fe­in­stein.

It wasn’t as if Florida State Coach Leonard Hamil­ton didn’t warn his play­ers. Af­ter his team had beaten Louisville eight days ago to fin­ish a re­mark­able six-game run in which the Semi­noles went 5-1 against ranked teams, he warned his play­ers not to get car­ried away with all the oohing and aahing they were re­ceiv­ing na­tion­ally.

“’Noles now a num­ber one seed!” screamed the brack­e­tol­o­gists, who change their pre­dic­tions on an al­most hourly ba­sis.

“FSU looks like a Fi­nal Four team,” was an­other In­ter­net head­line — as if early April some­how came in late January.

“I told them that what they did against those teams was im­pres­sive, but they bet­ter not let down with three straight road games com­ing up,” Hamil­ton said on Tues­day af­ter­noon, just be­fore he and his team flew to At­lanta to play Ge­or­gia Tech the next night. “They let up on the road in this league and they’ll pay for it. I hope they un­der­stand that.”

Ap­par­ently, they didn’t. At least not on Wed­nes­day when Ge­or­gia Tech — the only team to beat North Carolina in ACC play so far this win­ter — ham­mered the Semi­noles, 78-56, hav­ing led by 26 at half­time.

“They out­played us, they out­pre­pared us,” Hamil­ton said after­ward. “Their play­ers played bet­ter and they prob­a­bly out­coached us. They were con­nected men­tally and emo­tion­ally a lot bet­ter than we were.

“In­evitably, it seems to hap­pen to ev­ery team ev­ery year. I hope it’s the only one we’re go­ing to have.”

Then, on Saturday, the six­thranked Semi­noles fell again, 8272, at Syra­cuse.

The truth in Hamil­ton’s last com­ment can be found in the fact that no col­lege bas­ket­ball team has gone un­de­feated since 1976. The night be­fore his six­thranked team got burned in At­lanta, top-ranked Vil­lanova, sec­ond-ranked Kansas and fourth-ranked Ken­tucky all lost on the road.

Still, there is plenty of rea­son to be­lieve the losses won’t start a pro­longed slump for the Semi­noles, who are 18-4 over­all, 6-3 in the ACC. Hamil­ton has been at Florida State for 15 years. His 2011 team reached the Sweet 16 be­fore los­ing by one to VCU’s Fi­nal Four team. His 2012 team won the ACC tour­na­ment. He be­lieves this could be his best team.

“Po­ten­tially,” he said. “We’ll have to see how much we im­prove be­tween now and March. I keep telling them if we want to get where we want to go in March, we have to im­prove ev­ery day in January and in Fe­bru­ary. It’s a good group. Most of the time, they lis­ten.”

The Semi­noles are tal­ented and fas­ci­nat­ing all at once. They have two 7-foot­ers who are role play­ers: 7-1 se­nior Michael Ojo and 7-4 sopho­more Christ Koumadje com­bine to play about 24 min­utes a game, av­er­ag­ing about nine points and five re­bounds be­tween them. But each is an in­tim­i­dat­ing de­fen­sive pres­ence on the floor and helps give Hamil­ton the abil­ity to play big, small or both.

There isn’t a se­nior among the team’s three stars: ju­nior for­ward Xavier Rathan-Mayes; sopho­more guard Dwayne Ba­con; and fresh­man cen­ter Jonathan Isaac.

At 6-7, Ba­con can get his shot al­most any time he wants — he hit the win­ning three-pointer at Vir­ginia to cul­mi­nate a 29-point af­ter­noon — but also passes the ball well. Isaac is a pos­si­ble one­and-done, av­er­ag­ing more than 13 points and al­most eight re­bounds a game. Rathan-Mayes is the glue guy: he doesn’t score that much (10.1 points per game) but av­er­ages nearly five as­sists. All could come back next year. Or all could be gone.

“I don’t worry about that,” Hamil­ton said. “Now is cer­tainly not the time to do that any­way. But I think we’ve re­cruited well and we’re in a place now if we lose some kids early, we’ll con­tinue to be good. It’s a dif­fer­ent time. You have to be pre­pared for that.”

Hamil­ton is 68 and has seen many dif­fer­ent times and many dif­fer­ent places in his coach­ing ca­reer. He was with Joe. B Hall at Ken­tucky when it won the 1978 na­tional ti­tle and reached two other Fi­nal Fours. His first head coach­ing shot came at Ok­la­homa State, where he went from eight wins in sea­son one to 17 in sea­son four. He then took over a Mi­ami pro­gram that was about to go into the Big East and promptly went 1-17 in con­fer­ence play in 1991, the Hur­ri­canes’ first sea­son.

Nine years later, Mi­ami tied for first in the regular sea­son and reached the Sweet 16.

And then came Michael Jor­dan.

Jor­dan had taken over the Wash­ing­ton Wizards’ front of­fice dur­ing the 1999-2000 sea­son and was look­ing for a new coach af­ter a 29-53 dis­as­ter. He landed on Hamil­ton. One year later, af­ter go­ing 19-63, Jor­dan went look­ing for a new coach again.

“I’ve never re­gret­ted it,” Hamil­ton in­sisted about his lost sea­son in Wash­ing­ton. “We faced some chal­lenges, but I thought the team was well-coached. When Michael told me he wanted to come back and play and bring back a coach he’d played for be­fore [Doug Collins], I re­spected that.”

The fol­low­ing sea­son, for the first time in 30 years, Hamil­ton wasn’t coach­ing. “I could have had a job,” he said. “I had col­lege teams con­tact­ing me dur­ing the sea­son in Wash­ing­ton. But I de­cided to wait — I’d never had a va­ca­tion. By January, when I was con­stantly watch­ing two games at once in two dif­fer­ent rooms, my wife said to me, ‘You need to go back to work.’ ”

So he did, at Florida State. Fif­teen years later, only Mike Krzyzewski has been coach­ing in the ACC longer. What’s more, Hamil­ton says he isn’t go­ing any­place any­time soon.

“I don’t play golf, I don’t fish and I don’t like to travel very much,” he said, laugh­ing. “I feel great and, even with all the changes, I still love do­ing this. I wake up ev­ery morn­ing ex­cited about prac­tice, ex­cited about the games.

“I love the re­la­tion­ships I have with the play­ers — the ones here now — and the ones who I’ve coached in the past. The best thing to me isn’t win­ning, it’s be­ing in­vited to wed­dings or chris­ten­ings or the phone calls from guys who are about to get mar­ried or have a baby. To me, that’s win­ning.”

Some­time soon, Hamil­ton will win his 500th game as a col­lege coach. He’s at 496 and hopes he’ll keep adding to that num­ber for years to come. He’s the only per­son to win coach-of-the-year hon­ors in both the Big East and the ACC. He’s been to the Sweet 16. He’d like to go far­ther than that this spring.

“We’ve got a chance,” he said. “But right now, I don’t even want to think about that. If I think about that, if the kids think about that, then we won’t be good enough in March. I know we need to get bet­ter on de­fense and be more con­sis­tent on of­fense. Be­lieve me, I can find plenty of things to work on ev­ery day in prac­tice. We’ve got a long way to go. I need to make sure they un­der­stand that.”

Saturday’s loss at Syra­cuse proved again why Hamil­ton was con­cerned about this three-game road swing. There is clearly much more to learn. Se­lec­tion Sun­day is six weeks away.

MARK WALLHEISER/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

Florida State’s Leonard Hamil­ton coached the Wash­ing­ton Wizards for one sea­son. “I’ve never re­gret­ted it,” he said.

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