Team preview: Florida State

Blue Ribbon Illustrated previews the 2004-05 college basketball season, exclusively on Insider.

Updated: October 19, 2004, 5:42 PM ET
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COACH AND PROGRAM

Leonard Hamilton knows what it takes to build a winning basketball program.

Florida State, which he inherited in 2002, is his third major reclamation project. While Hamilton has never produced an overnight turnaround, he ultimately led Oklahoma State and Miami out of the basketball boondocks and now seems to have the Seminoles headed slowly but surely in the right direction. His first FSU team managed to improve by two games over Steve Robinson's previous club and barely missed a trip to the NIT. The win total went up another five games in Hamilton's second year as FSU recorded its most victories since 1997 and barely missed the NCAA Tournament.

"I feel as though we came up a little short each year," Hamilton said. "I try never to put any expectations on my team. Whenever I take over a situation, the only goal I set is to try and reach our potential. Even though we've gotten better, a lot of areas need improvement."

It wouldn't take much improvement to make Florida State an NCAA Tournament team. The Seminoles appeared to be in good shape last season after beating Virginia on Feb. 17 to go 18-8 and 6-6 in the ACC. But five straight league losses-including a three-point loss at Wake Forest, a five-point lost to Final Four-bound Duke and a three-point loss to Final Four bound Georgia Tech-left Florida State on the outside of the 64-team field.

Still, FSU's 19 wins were the most at the school since the 1997 team won 20 and the NIT trip was the program's first postseason appearance since 1998. All in all, not bad for the second year in Hamilton's rebuilding plan.

But it remains to be seen if the veteran coach can maintain Florida State's upward momentum after losing three starters to graduation, including first-team All-ACC guard Tim Pickett. The former junior college player was FSU's only double-figure scorer last season. Not only did he lead the Seminoles with 16.5 points-per-game, he was second in rebounding, first in steals, second in assists and made more three-pointers than the next three FSU players combined. And, oh yes, he was only the best defensive guard in the ACC.

"Part of the growing process is to try and win within the system," Hamilton said. "For two years, we have been trying to develop our system to make it easier for a player to contribute. Obviously, there were times in our first two seasons when our system would break down. Tim bailed us out when we were not efficient. If our system is more effective this season, maybe we won't need one guy to bail us out."

Hamilton certainly returns enough talented players to replace Pickett in four-year starting forward Michael Joiner and starting point guard Nate Johnson. The Seminoles return five players who started at some point last season and add six promising newcomers. Two of the newcomers were members of last year's recruiting class, which was rated No. 1 nationally by four different publications.

One of the main reasons it ranked so high was Diego Romero, a 6-10 240-pound Argentine who averaged 14.5 points and 8.5 rebounds at Lon Morris (Texas) Junior College two years ago. Romero might have made the difference between the NIT and NCAA for the Seminoles last season, but he got caught by the NCAA's change in eligibility requirements for foreign players. FSU finally convinced the NCAA that Romero should have been judged by the old standards and not by rules put in place after he'd already signed his scholarship. But by that time, the season was already half over and Hamilton elected to red-shirt the powerful inside player. Still, Romero got to practice with the 'Noles, giving Hamilton a glimpse of what his new big man offers.

"I think the thing Diego has proven in practice is that he will make everybody around him better," Hamilton said. "He has a clear understanding of how the game is played. I had an NBA scout watch him and tell me, 'He sees the game in slow motion.' "

Romero is likely to team inside with 6-10, 250-pound sophomore Alexander Johnson (9.5 ppg, 4.2 rpg), who started 16 games and was the team's No. 2 scorer as a freshman. He was also the team's best shooter (.551) as he became just the third FSU freshman to earn a place on the All-ACC freshman team.

Further inside depth will come from 6-8, 240-pound senior Adam Waleskowski (6.8 ppg, 5.4 rpg), the team's leading rebounder and shot blocker last season. If Hamilton needs even more depth in the post, he'll call on 6-7 sophomore Al Thornton (2.8 ppg., 1.8 rpg.), an intriguing young player who appears to have more upside than his modest stats would indicate.

There's also slender 6-10 freshman Jerome Habel, a left-handed shot blocker from Burtonsville, Md., who comes to FSU after prepping a year at Marriott Charter High School in Washington, D.C.

Hamilton has never liked forcing players into positional straightjackets and is likely to use lineups that include just one traditional post player. That will allow him to take advantage of his deep, varied group of wing players.

His proven options range from 6-7 senior Anthony Richardson (7.3 ppg, 3.6 rpg), a slender offensive dynamo, to 6-6 junior Andrew Wilson (4.1 ppg, 2.0 rpg), a fundamentally sound defender with a dangerous three-point shot, to powerful 6-5 sophomore Von Wafer (7.9 ppg, 1.9 rpg), an explosive scorer who provided only hints of his ability last season.

"[Wafer] is certainly capable of giving us an offensive lift," Hamilton said.

The former prep All-American from Homer, La., showed the range of his gifts at Virginia last season, when he burned the Cavaliers for 17 points, eight rebounds and five assists. His 43 three-pointers were the second-most by a freshman in FSU history.

Wilson doesn't have Wafer's physical gifts, but his return from the knee injury that sidelined him most of the 2002-03 season was a big plus for the Seminoles. "He's a smart, heady player with a lot of versatility," Hamilton said.

Wilson, who started 13 games last season, is the team's top returning three-point shooter (.375).

Richardson doesn't have that kind of range, but his mid-range jumper is deadly and he can use his quickness and long body to overpower defenders as he did when he exploded for a career-high 27 points when FSU beat Northwestern in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge. Still, the former McDonald's All-American hasn't been the player many at FSU hoped he would be when Robinson stole the Raleigh, N.C., product off Tobacco Road. Hamilton is hoping that as the team's only two seniors, both Richardson and Waleskowski will finish strong.

"They should be very hungry for their last go-around," Hamilton said.

Richardson's chances of playing more than the 13.6 minutes a game that he averaged last season will depend on the readiness of two new recruits to contribute. Antonio Griffin, a 6-6 forward from Phoenix, Ariz., was supposed to be part of last year's recruiting class. Selected the nation's No. 21 junior college player after averaging 16.0 points and 7.4 rebounds at Scottsdale (Ariz.) Community College in 2002-03, Griffin took a year off to qualify academically. He arrives with a 40-inch vertical leap and the skills to push Hamilton's veteran wings.

"He's a phenomenal athlete," Scottsdale coach Paul Eberhart said of Griffin. "He's a slasher who can get to the basket. He's really good off the dribble, has a good mid-range game and rebounds very well."

Also competing for playing time on the wing will be 6-3 freshman Jason Rich, a Parade All-American from Orlando, Fla., who averaged 21.5 points and 4.5 assists as a senior at Dr. Phillips High School.

Two more freshmen guards, 6-1 Isaiah Swann of Gaithersburg, Md., and 6-2 Ralph Mims of Brunswick, Maine could also see time on the wing, although Hamilton plans to give both a chance to push his one returning point guard-5-11 junior Todd Galloway (3.2 ppg, 2.2 apg).

Galloway, who spent two seasons as Johnson's backup, has never been a spectacular player, but he has been solid. He boasts almost a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio and while he hit double figures just once as a sophomore, he did hit some big shots, such as three-pointer to force overtime in an eventual victory over North Carolina.

Swann and Mims appear to bring more physical gifts. Swann, a combo guard in his prep career, played point during an extra year of prep school at Hargrave Military Academy in Virginia, where he averaged 23.8 points and 9.0 assists. Mims, voted Mr. Basketball in the state of Maine, averaged 28.9 points and 5.5 assists as a prep senior and scored 87 points in the final two games of Brunswick High School's run to the state title.

"A lot will depend on how fast they adjust to college basketball," Hamilton said of his young guards.

And a lot will depend on how quickly Hamilton can blend his solid but unspectacular core of returning players with his potentially outstanding newcomers.

"When I look at our team, I see three sophomores and basically four new players who have never played for us," Hamilton said. "All the new guys have to be contributors. The talent in the system is so much beyond where it was when we began. The only question is whether our returning players can help shorten the learning curve of our newcomers and allow that talent to flourish."

It's going to be tough for Florida State to move up in a league with so many proven teams as the ACC will have. But Hamilton is steadily closing the talent gap and it won't be long before he has the Seminoles competing with the league's elite.

BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS

BACKCOURT: B-
BENCH/DEPTH: B+
FRONTCOURT: A-
INTANGIBLES: B

In another league … in another year, Florida State might be ready to contend for its first ACC first-division finish since 1993.

But the ACC is loaded in 2004-05. Florida State suffered heavier graduation losses than the six teams which finished ahead of the Seminoles last season. Hamilton might be able to replace the talent he lost, but he can't replace the experience that Pickett, Johnson and Joiner provided. And he can't come close to replacing the leadership of Pickett.

Anybody who saw his heroic performance against N.C. State in the ACC Tournament, when Pickett overcame two badly injured ankles to almost single-handedly rally the Seminoles to victory, understands that he was the heart and soul of last year's FSU team.

He won't be easy to replace. But that doesn't mean the Florida State's revival will take more than a temporary step back this season. Hamilton has improved the talent level at FSU every season. That's got to pay off in the long run.

For the most comprehensive previews on all 326 Division I teams, order the 384-page "Bible" of college basketball, Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com.

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