SB Nation

Matt Minnick | November 18, 2015

Leonard Hamilton & Florida State's long and winding road

"And Florida State wins its first ever ACC Championship!"

It was March 11, 2012, and one of the quintessential Atlantic Coast Conference basketball broadcasters, Tim Brant, had just sent shivers down the spine of every Tobacco Road purist.

Florida State winning league titles in football? Well sure—success on the gridiron is the very reason the Seminoles were pursued by ACC brass. But winning a crown on the hardwood, by defeating Duke and North Carolina in back-to-back games? Preposterous.

And yet, this moment suddenly existed. Confetti streamed, and the Warchant blared, cutting through the cacophony of crowd noise. In the post-game handshakes, it was the players in powder blue with their heads down and eyes sullen, while the men in garnet bounced gleefully, flashing mega-watt smiles. Perhaps the only image that made sense on this surreal Championship Sunday was that the coach cutting down the nets hailed from the Tar Heel State.

Leonard Hamilton, one of Gastonia, North Carolina's most beloved sons, had just made history.

As with every "I don't believe what I just saw" moment, the initial ground-shaking disbelief was followed by waves of aftershock questions.  How did this happen? What series of events came together to create this stunning result and was it possible to have seen this coming? What impact, if any, does this have moving forward?

While such questions come fast and furious to the bewildered brain, comprehensive answers often require reflection and perspective—with the passage of time a prerequisite of both of those. Three years removed from that triumphant March day, that is the purpose of this article.

In order to best answer the questions behind a story with such an unexpected crescendo, this piece is broken into three parts:

I.      The Long and Winding Championship Road

II.    Paradise Lost—Where the Rebuild Went Wrong

III.  FSU's Place in a Soon-to-be Super-Conference

Into the Abyss

While we're not setting out to criticize former Florida State head coach Steve Robinson, it is contextually vital to have at least a base understanding of the depths to which the program sank just prior to Hamilton's arrival in March of 2002 (nearly 10 years to the day before his team would cut down the nets in Atlanta).

After earning a shocking at-large selection in the NCAA Tournament during Robinson's first season (the Noles danced despite a 17-13 (6-10) record, just four RPI top 50 wins, and losses in six of their last seven), things quickly went south. Robinson, known as a strong X's and O's coach, inherited a talented—albeit poorly coached—squad from the end of Pat Kennedy's crumbled regime. However, it quickly become apparent that he was simply in over his head when it came to recruiting at a high-major program.

"It's not about the X's and O's, but the Jimmy's and Joe's" is a common refrain in athletics, and perhaps nowhere is that more true than college basketball.

Over the next four seasons, FSU sported a 46-72 overall record and a woeful 19-45 in league play. And in many of those losses, Robinson's squads weren't even competitive, losing by 20+ points on eight separate occasions in the 2002 season alone—not to mention home losses to Western Carolina and American University.

The overall talent level resembled that of a mid-major, and depth was also an issue. Robinson's teams often started strong—relatively speaking—but collapsed as the grind of ACC play took its toll. The Seminoles lost 9 of their last 10 games to close the 2002 regular season, 11 of the last 15 in 2001, 8 of the last 11 in 2000, and 9 of their last 10 in 1999. Not exactly a recipe for winning basketball championships of any kind.

As the performance on the court soured, fan support became virtually non-existent. The football crazed Seminole faithful had never been confused with Kentucky's Big Blue Nation, but the NBA talent laden teams assembled by Pat Kennedy a decade earlier consistently drew a raucous crowd. By 2002, the Civic Center resembled present day Miami Hurricane football games - only in those days there was no option to watch all the games on television. Fans just chose to ignore the whole thing.

Florida State had become a basketball wasteland. Enter Leonard Hamilton.

The Program Builder

Hamilton, the first choice of then Athletic Director, Dave Hart, specialized in rebuilding programs. In the late 1980s he led Oklahoma State to consecutive post-season berths for the first time in over 30 years. Hamilton then upped the anti by guiding Miami, a school with one NCAAT appearance in its history prior to his arrival, to three consecutive tournaments from 1998-2000, the school's first Sweet Sixteen appearance ever, and a share of the 2000 Big East regular season title.

But Hamilton's latest rebuild appeared to be his most challenging yet. Not only must he bring another program back from the abyss, he now had to do this while coaching in the Atlantic Coast Conference. ACC basketball has historically been able to combine the power and athleticism of the Big East with the skill which programs like Indiana and UCLA were known for. Names dotting rosters across the league in 2003 include Raymond Felton, Sean May, J.J. Redick, Dahntay Jones, Chris Bosh, Jarrett Jack, Josh Howard, Julius Hodge, and Steve Blake.

Surveying the scene of this daunting task, Hamilton knew that in order to build FSU into a championship contender he could not rely on a quick fix.  Accordingly, he devised a plan that would allow his teams to become immediately competitive while simultaneously building a long-term foundation for consistent success. Three pillars stood at the base of this plan, from which everything else would be built: length, athleticism, and depth.

Length, Athleticism, and Depth

In high school basketball, recruits typically fall into one of three buckets. The first two are fairly common:  "skilled" players who possess a mature grasp of the game and can do one or more identifiable skills (shooting, ball-handling, etc.) at a high level, but often lack high-major athleticism. And "athletic" players, which is the broad term for kids with ample upside and raw attributes, but it's still more potential than a refined basketball player.

Then there is the third bucket—the elite recruits. Both skilled and athletic, they posses refined games and NBA-level length, quickness, and explosion.

Elite recruits, by and large, end up at elite programs. In 2002, FSU was not even under consideration by such players. Accordingly, Hamilton had a choice: would he recruit skilled players who could hopefully out-shoot the bluebloods in the ACC, reminiscent of a mid-major upset in March? Or would he recruit athletic players who could be developed, molded, and coached up into long, explosive basketball players?

The answer was, in small part, dictated by the strengths of the kinds of recruits most commonly found across the landscape of southeastern high school basketball. But the driving force behind the path chosen by Leonard Hamilton goes back to who he is as a coach.

Leonard Hamilton is a defensive mastermind. Contrary to popular myth, Hamilton does not prefer a plodding offensive pace. Where this myth stems from is the grinding halt opposing offenses are often brought to by his "Junkyard" defenses.

Throughout his career, Hamilton's teams have routinely finished in the upper echelon of the conference—and even country—in defensive efficiency and field goal percentage allowed. He utilizes a "team-man" concept to pressure the ball, front the post, and funnel offenses into difficult shots. At their best (and in overly simplistic terms) Hamilton's teams block shots, create turnovers, and just generally disrupt the other team's offensive execution.

In order to execute his unique style of defense, Hamilton squads need three qualities:

1. Length - This disrupts passing lanes, forces shooters to alter their shots, and erases shots that do go up before they reach their zenith.

2. Athleticism - To be an elite man-to-man defender you need lateral quickness, quick hands, and explosive bounce off the floor.

3. Depth - Proper execution of Hamilton's defense is exhausting. It often forces teams to work the entire shot clock just to get off a poor shot. Not only do you need a bench that's 10 deep, you need the depth to be mostly interchangeable parts. Nearly all players will be expected to guard the perimeter at times, while also rebounding and blocking shots.

So that was the plan. Go out and find long, athletic players who were willing to share minutes with 9 or 10 other guys, and could be developed into a cohesive, championship contender. Of course, the best laid plans of mice and men...

Red Flags, Bad Breaks, and the Class that Saved a Job

Leonard Hamilton's defensive wizardry was felt immediately at FSU. The 2002 team—Steve Robinson's last season as a head coach—ranked 180th in defensive efficiency, placing them next to last in the ACC. The 2003 team, despite a roster with just three players listed as 6'8 or taller, finished the season ranked 18th in the nation and 3rd in the conference.

However, the overall results were still a work in progress. FSU, with just two top 100 recruits on the team (Anthony Richardson and Michael Joiner. Of course the two best players were diamonds in the JUCO rough, Tim Pickett and Nate Johnson) couldn't compete against the loaded ACC competition and ended the year with a 14-15 overall record, 4-12 in league play.

Simply put, Hamilton needed more talent. And talent is exactly what he started bringing in...with some giant red flags.

Leonard Hamilton is acknowledged by his peers as a tireless recruiter who is especially adept at spotting talent before it "blows up" on the national AAU scene. (If you've never heard about the story/urban legend of Ham famously recruiting James "Fly" Williams to Austin Peay, do yourself a favor and Google it). These traits, plus a brand new practice facility, helped FSU see immediate dividends on the recruiting trail with a level of player not consistently seen in garnet and gold since the mid-90s. In fact, names like Von Wafer, Alexander Johnson, Diego Romero, and Antonio Griffin prompted Rivals to rank FSU's 2003 recruiting class as the best in the nation (I disagreed then and do now, but that's a separate conversation). And until Jonathan Isaac, Wafer was still the highest consensus ranked player signed by Hamilton.

So why would these highly ranked guys sign with lowly FSU? Because they all had significant flaws—either physical, mental, or eligibility wise—causing most bluebloods to pass.

Wafer was a head case, and was ultimately told to leave after his sophomore campaign. Johnson was old for his age and a tweener on the court. Romero was surrounded by eligibility headaches that delayed his arrival at FSU. Griffin was a JUCO who failed to qualify, resigned in 2004, and ultimately played nine total games as a Nole.

The following year was again a top 20 class, but again filled with risk. Jason Rich was a bit of a tweener, though he did enjoy a very productive career. Isaiah Swann was a gunner in a PG's body who wasn't interested in playing defense. Ralph Mims (another guy who ultimately had a solid career) had great stats but didn't face much high school competition in Maine. And Griffin wasted a scholarship spot.

2006 featured more risk, some of which paid off handsomely (the transfer of combo guard Toney Douglas) and some of which produced very little (tweener forward Casaan Breeden).

The end result looked somewhat like a long-term Dow Jones chart. A steady rise in talent and depth over time, but not without some dips—ahem, the 2004-05 season—along the way.

As the win totals demonstrate, the product on the court was significantly improved. But despite pulling off wins against the conference elite virtually every season, the amount of risk built into every new recruiting class combined with some plain ol' bad luck prevented FSU from ever enjoying the kind of breakthrough season that results in a bid to the NCAA Tourney.

Hamilton's rebuild project seemed ahead of schedule in 2004 after a string of stirring home upsets of top 10 teams revitalized the Seminole faithful. But the inability to register even a single road win relegated FSU to the NIT.

2006 saw FSU, led by the spectacular play of Al Thornton (ironically, one of the least heralded recruits signed by Ham at FSU), finish above .500 in ACC for the first time in more than a decade. But an abysmal OOC schedule resulted in the Noles being left out on Selection Sunday.

The very next season seemed to be the one Seminole faithful had been waiting for after FSU upset Duke in Cameron Indoor Stadium to move to 17-6 on the year. However, a bad break—literally in the form of a Toney Douglas broken hand—led to five consecutive losses and another trip to the NIT.

By the end of a disappointing 2008 season, the program appeared to have flat lined and fans were getting restless. Many called for Hamilton to be fired and to be honest they had a good case. Instead, he was given one more season to get over the hump.

A major factor in the decision to retain Hamilton for the 2009 season was the incoming recruiting class. After attending thousands of AAU basketball games creating a narrative of the kind of family-focused program he was building down in Tallahassee, Hamilton's efforts and network had finally resulted in a truly special class. It may not have had a "#1" attached to it, but the six-man class was easily Ham's best (up to that point) at FSU. There was still some risk—Derwin Kitchen was a JUCO who was previously ruled academically ineligible and Chris Singleton was a McDonald's All-American based more on potential than skill—but no where near the levels seen in the previous highly ranked classes.

But as good as the 2008 recruiting class was, they still needed a veteran leader. And Toney Douglas' decision to come back for his senior year proved to be the catalyst for FSU's breakthrough. The Noles finished in the top 4 of the ACC for the first time since 1993, advanced to the ACC Tourney Finals, and earned a five seed in the Big Dance.

And while the Seminoles fell victim to a classic 12/5 upset in overtime against Wisconsin, the foundation had been set to sustain the success. From 2009-2012 Florida State reeled off a school record four consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances, established itself as the clear-cut third best program in the ACC, advanced to the Sweet Sixteen for just the third time since the tournament expanded to 64 teams, and posted overall efficiency rankings of 31, 33, 29, and 25. Teams brimming with depth and athleticism morphed into defensive juggernauts, making scoring difficult for elite opponents and downright impossible for average teams. Oh, and did I mention the ACC Championship?

Indeed, Leonard Hamilton had accomplished the goal he stated from day 1: he turned FSU into a program of relevance.

But now that banner class had exhausted its eligibility. To be clear, there were high-level pieces added since the 2008 class. Michael Snaer, Okaro White, and Ian Miller were all recruits similar to the ones who made up the breakthrough class. However, some of the risk from Ham's earlier years had crept back in, with eligibility issues and undelivered potential creating "lost classes."

Like 2009, the 2013 Seminoles would rely on a bevy of newcomers led by one star senior. Only this time, the senior leader wasn't a PG.

Tune in tomorrow to see how it all went wrong.

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