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What Leonard Hamilton’s extension means for FSU basketball

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This is part one of a two part series.

Florida State v Miami Photo by Joel Auerbach/Getty Images

As you may have heard, Florida State Seminoles basketball Head Coach Leonard Hamilton signed a contract extension that will keep him in Tallahassee through the 2024-25 season.

While the decision to sign Hamilton was a complete no-brainer the extension does have ramifications for the Seminole men’s basketball program. This news also provides a milestone that we can use to examine where the program is today and where it may be headed in the future.

These are real questions posed by real people in the sense that they are actual questions (they end in a question mark) and I am a real person (I have written all of the questions).

Let’s start with the basics.

Was there any real suspense about whether Coach Hamilton would actually sign the extension?

In a word: No. It was obvious that both sides had good reason to want to get this extension done.

Coach Hamilton has a great thing going in Tallahassee and by all accounts he has a very good relationship with the administration. There is no apparent reason for him to want to leave.

The incentive for FSU to extend Hamilton is even greater. FSU is extremely lucky to have someone of Hamilton’s ability on the sidelines. Florida State will want to hold on to him as long as possible given the success that he has had in guiding the program to where it is now especially given the challenges inherent in achieving sustained success at a program like Florida State.

Why is it harder to have sustained success at “a program like Florida State?”

It basically comes down to resources. Very few schools have the resources to compete at the highest levels in both football and men’s basketball. Therefore choices must be made. Florida State has long ago chosen to prioritize football. There is a lot of talk (much of it ironic) about FSU now being a basketball school. To the extent that is true it is only the case in terms of current results as the basketball program is now obviously more successful right now than the football program.

However, in every other way Florida State is still very much a football school. The football program enjoys more financial support, has bigger budgets, better facilities, etc.

In short, the FSU basketball program is competing with schools in the ACC and nationally that enjoy more relative support from their respective administrations. Therefore, Hamilton is often operating at a disadvantage from the outset when competing with those programs. He has found a way to compete (and have sustained success) despite these challenges.

How has Hamilton been able to have such success?

It obviously hasn’t happened overnight. Hamilton has been at FSU since 2002. He has definitely had success before now (Sweet 16 in 2011, ACC title in 2012). However, this recent stretch has been his longest period of sustained success.

On the court he has proven adaptable to both current trends in modern basketball and also flexible in his approach so that he is able to get the best out of the talent on the roster.

The biggest key to the recent success is probably the way that he has been able to manage the talent on the roster. The word “manage” is important here. He has not just upgraded the talent (although he has done that too) he has attracted the right kind of players that have allowed him to create a positive and unique culture in Tallahassee.

Florida State is not a blueblood school. It is very difficult for the Seminoles (or any other program) to recruit with the bluebloods on a year-in year-out basis. But banners aren’t hung in the rafters for recruiting success. Games must be won on the court. Despite the fact that the bluebloods are going to rank higher in the recruiting rankings it is still very possible (although not easy) to beat them on the court. Hamilton has found the secret sauce.

The strategy employed by the bluebloods is to recruit the most talented players possible regardless of whether they will be one-and-dones. The bluebloods are very successful at this strategy. They get the lion’s share of the most highly rated recruits and therefore mostly finish at the top of the recruiting rankings. The Duke Blue Devils are a great example of this. Here is where the Blue Devils have ranked in the last five recruiting classes according to 247 Sports:

2020 - 3rd

2019 - 3rd

2018 - 1st

2017 - 1st

2016 - 1st

Florida State’s rankings are as follows:

2020 - 41st

2019 - 19th

2018 - 126th

2017 - 12th

2016 - 4th

Obviously Duke has had much greater recruiting success according to the rankings. However, on the court it has been a slightly different story.

Here are the ACC regular season finishes for each team.

This year FSU is currently first and Duke is currently eighth in the ACC standings. Duke’s results aren’t horrible as they have finished in the top 5 in every recent year but FSU’s results in the relative time period are at least comparable and the Seminoles have had this success despite being dusted by Duke in the recruiting rankings.

This analysis proves what you probably already knew. There is no perfect strategy. The blueblood strategy of going after the most talented players regardless of how long they will stay with the program suffers from a significant flaw. Executing this strategy correctly means that schools like Duke will always have extremely talented rosters (more talent than teams like FSU) but they will almost always be young. In college sports older is better. Therefore, it works for FSU to recruit slightly less talented players, coach them up, and then benefit from their experience when playing more talented but inexperienced teams. Hamilton has been quite successful in executing this strategy recently and that has led to the strong uptick in success for the program.

Well, if Hamilton’s strategy is so great why aren’t other programs replicating it?

Because it is very hard to execute the strategy correctly.

Recruiting is difficult. The blueblood strategy of recruiting five-stars basically requires the bluebloods to identify the best players and then successfully recruit them. While it is relatively easy to go to AAU events and identify the top players, even for bluebloods it is not easy to actually successfully recruit five-stars.

However, it is much easier to execute that simple strategy then it is to execute Hamilton’s strategy. Hamilton is not just recruiting for this year, he is recruiting for the future. He must (1) find guys that he feels will accept and improve the culture that has already been established, (2) that will be receptive to the coaching needed to improve and (3) have the talent necessary to succeed in the competitive ACC and nationally. It is much tougher to identify these players than it is to just go out and recruit the best players at AAU tournaments.

But Hamilton has done it.

To illustrate this we can examine the last five years of recruiting classes at Florida State and compute a hit rate. In most of the cases it will be easy to determine whether the recruit was a hit or a miss but in the few marginal cases I consider a recruit to be a hit if he made a meaningful contribution for at least one year in Tallahassee. If the player averaged at least 10 minutes played for at least one year I consider that to be a meaningful contribution and therefore the player is a hit. The letter after each player’s name indicates whether the player is a hit (H), miss (M) or incomplete (I). For obvious reasons, I am only considering scholarship players in this analysis.

2020

Quincy Ballard - I

Scottie Barnes - H

Sardaar Calhoun - H

Tanor Ngom - I

I am giving the big men incompletes because we haven’t seen enough of them yet but I think that the signs are quite encouraging for both of them. Barnes and Calhoun are pretty obviously hits.

2019

RayQuan Evans - H

Nathanael Jack - I

Balsa Koprivica - H

Dominik Olejniczak - H

Patrick Williams - H

Most of the players in this class are also obviously hits. Jack gets an incomplete because while he hasn’t hit the 10 minute threshold yet he could do so next year.

2018

Devin Vassell - H

Not much to say here.

2017

RaiQuan Gray - H

Ike Obiagu - H

Anthony Polite - H

MJ Walker - H

Wyatt Wilkes - H

Obiagu is the only player in question from this class. He obviously only stayed in Tallahassee for one year before transferring to Seton Hall but he did actually average 10.7 minutes a game in that season. I won’t argue too much if you want to call him a miss but the staff obviously didn’t know that he would transfer while recruiting him and he did contribute to the team as a freshman. He averaged over two blocks a game that season.

2016

Braian Angola - H

Trent Forrest - H

Jonathan Isaac - H

Mfiondu Kabengele - H

PJ Savoy - H

CJ Walker - H

This is another class that is fairly obvious. Walker did transfer but he was a starter before he left. He was clearly a contributor.

I hope you enjoyed that trip down memory lane.

What the examination of the recent recruiting classes reveals is that Hamilton’s hit rate is absurdly high. It is basically 100%. Even if you consider the transfers a miss (which I don’t) his hit rate is an extremely robust 88.9%. I am ignoring the incompletes in that calculation.

This is why it is so hard to successfully implement Hamilton’s strategy. It is extremely hard to hit on so many players. It requires the ability to identify and recognize the talent, the ability to coach it up and the patience to wait for it to blossom. It also requires the coaches to recruit the occasional five-star to add a boost to the team. Most coaching staffs can’t do all of this but Hamilton along with his staff (Stan Jones, Charlton Young, Steve Smith, Dennis Gates in the past) have been able to accomplish this difficult feat.

In part 2 we will look more to the future and discuss where the program is now and where it can possibly go in the near, medium and long term.