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FSU's Place in the Soon-to-be Super Conference

Part III of the longform covering Leonard Hamilton's tenure at Florida State

Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

"The best way to predict your future is to create it." -- Abraham Lincoln

Part I of this longform focused on how Leonard Hamilton overcame adversity to build Florida State into a championship program. Part II looked at the adversity which led to a fall from the mountain top. If you haven't read either, I'd suggest doing so before going forward with the final chapter.

The Atlantic Coast Conference may not be the birthplace of college basketball, but it is certainly the historical standard by which other conferences are judged. Of the four programs with a .700 or better all-time win percentage, two were charter members of the ACC. And it's not all ancient history either. In the 20 year period from 1991-2010, a team from the ACC played in the national title game 11 times, winning eight championships. From 2002 (the first year KenPom started tracking efficiency ratings) through 2010, the league ranked as one of the top two leagues five times, and finished below third just once.

But beginning in 2011, the most dominant league in college basketball suddenly started looking, well, less dominant. After being ranked outside the top three conferences just once in nine years, the ACC did so for three consecutive seasons.

And then basketball life as we knew it changed forever (or at least until the next round of expansion).

The 2014 season saw the addition of Syracuse, Notre Dame, and Pittsburgh, with Louisville joining the following year. The Orange, Fighting Irish, and Cardinals all sit in the top 11 in all-time victories and the Panthers made the NCAA Tourney 12 out of 13 seasons between 2002 and 2014.

In the blink of an eye, a super-conference was formed. And a Florida State program that had fought tooth and nail just to carve out a space as the "third best program behind Duke and UNC over the last decade" was now going to be fighting with even more basketball heavyweights just to finish in the top six of the league.

If we are to follow the words of wisdom from President Lincoln, exactly what kind of future should the Seminoles be looking to create?

Is winning the conference ever to be expected again? What about finishing in the top three? How many times does FSU need to make the NCAA Tournament in a 10 year stretch to be considered a success? What kinds of recruits can the Noles compete for? How much does a continued commitment to upgrading the facilities matter? What will happen when the elder statesmen of the league (Coach K, Jim Boeheim, Roy Williams, Leonard Hamilton, and Jim Larranaga are all 65 or older) start hanging up the whistle?  These questions--and many more--are obviously difficult to answer with any degree of certainty, but nevertheless it's important to have these kinds of discussions when evaluating the success of a season, or coach.

One question that seems to have a surprisingly positive answer (at least recently) is that of recruiting. Tomahawk Nation covered some of the reasons behind FSU's recent surge in recruiting in great detail earlier this year. But since then we have learned even more.

While it remains to be seen whether the 2015 class can mimic the catalytic impact of the program-changing 2008 class, the early returns are quite positive. But positive is one thing. Recruiting at the level it takes to cut down nets is another. Is FSU there?

Starting at the top of the mountain - with National Championships - we know that it takes a lot more than just hot play in March to win the NCAA Tournament. A hot hand is needed, sure, but what is really needed are future NBA players. We looked at all the NCAA Tournament winners since 1995, and the average roster contained 4.5 NBA draft picks, with 1.7 of those picks coming in the lottery. Last year's champion had two lottery picks, plus a 3rd first rounder. Throw in Grayson Allen as a likely 1st rounder, and Duke featured four guys on their way to guaranteed contracts.

Even a "Cinderella story" like Butler in 2010 (who lost in the National Title game to Duke) featured two NBA players, including a lottery pick in Gordon Hayward.

FSU fans are drooling over FSU's current talent, yet Dwayne Bacon is the only player who projects as a 1st rounder per Chad Ford. All of that can change, of course, and pretend drafts are not the end all when evaluating talent levels, but the take home is that the talent level at Florida State is nowhere near where it needs to be in order to think about national titles.

Conference titles are a different story. As long as FSU fans understand the differences between football and basketball. In football, FSU spends the money necessary to compete for national titles, even though most of the ACC programs do not. Florida State football should be the dominant program in the conference.

Basketball is a different ballgame. FSU's facilities, while currently undergoing a face lift, are not even average when compared with the rest of the conference. And to reel in recruits the Noles have to compete against many schools - UNC, Duke, Louisville, Syracuse - who pride themselves on spending the money necessary to win national titles.

It's difficult to track basketball expenditures by university, as there are no comprehensive accounting requirements for schools to track money (North Carolina, for example, is notorious for listing sports specific expenditures under general sports categories). Nonetheless, you can get an idea from tax statements and other sources.

The website Basketball State maintains an annual database. The most recent data shows FSU's basketball budget as No. 50 in the nation. Louisville, Duke, and Syracuse are in the top four nationally. FSU is 9th in the conference.

Like it or not, college athletics are about money, and the teams that spend the money win the games. Look at the list of national title winners. It's not encouraging if you are not a national power.

So, back to conference titles. To win, FSU has to compete against programs choosing to invest far more resources. It can happen, as FSU proved in 2012, but it's a bit of lightning in a bottle.

And that lightning comes in the form of players. When the Seminoles beat North Carolina for the ACC Title, that UNC team featured six NBA draft picks. To get to the final FSU knocked off Duke, and their roster featured four NBA picks.

What did Leonard Hamilton have? Bernard James, who was drafted in the 2nd round.

That's not sustainable.

To win big in the ACC you either have to get really lucky, or you need lots of NBA players. Go look for FSU alumni on NBA rosters and what do you see? Toney Douglas. That's it.

So if you need NBA talent to consistently compete in the ACC, then you need a coach who can consistently bring NBA talent to a place with awful fan support and below average facilities.

Somehow, someway, Leonard Hamilton is now doing that. Dwayne Bacon is projected (per Chad Ford) to be a 1st rounder. CBS will also be bumping him to the 1st round in their next update. Malik Beasley has NBA potential. Terance Mann might. Xavier Rathan-Mayes could sniff a roster.

And next year FSU is bringing in Jonathan Isaac, who virtually everyone projects as a lottery pick.

Could Dwayne Bacon and Jon Isaac play together at FSU? It's doubtful, but you never know.

And that's probably the best take home message for the future of Florida State in a soon-to-be super conference. It's doubtful that FSU can consistently be one of the top programs, but you never know.

Maybe fans will actually start caring, which would be the single biggest difference maker in recruiting. Players want to play in exciting games. They want to play in front of big crowds. FSU's uptick in recruiting could cause more people to come to games or even buy season tickets. Which would infuse more money into basketball. Which could be used to recruit more players, achieve higher levels of success, and raise even more support. Rinse and repeat. It's how programs are built. It's how Florida State's football program was transformed from a ragtag band of road warriors to an 800-pound gorilla.

One positive of living in a super conference is you don't actually have to finish in the top four--or even top six--to still earn a bid to the NCAA Tournament. In fact, this very season it would not be a surprise to see eight ACC teams in the Big Dance. And while we already know that several NBA players are a prerequisite for winning a national title, a trip to the Sweet 16 can be achieved by 11 seeds with a favorable draw. And perhaps that's enough for the "football first, spring football second" Seminole fan base? Four or Five NCAAT bids in a ten-year span with an occasional Sweet 16 run (which even this would realistically require more support than what is currently afforded to men's basketball).

Which brings us back to dear old Abe. What future do Seminole fans want to create? Leonard Hamilton worked a miracle by bringing FSU basketball from the ACC gutter to cutting down the nets. And it's possible he has one more miracle left in him. But one day in the not too distant future, FSU will be tasked with replacing the winningest coach in program history. Will the university--spurred on by fans and boosters speaking with their wallets and not fantasy-land expectations--decide to build off the foundation Hamilton laid? Or will the winter sport be once again allowed to slip into discontent?