Basketball coaches are an adaptable bunch, accustomed to dealing with problems - injuries, attrition and in-game situations - as they arise. Few, however, have enjoyed the kind of success Florida State veteran Leonard Hamilton has in this season of dramatic change with the Seminoles.
After finishing fourth in the Atlantic Coast Conference regular season and reaching the league championship game for the first time in program history, Hamilton's Seminoles returned to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in 11 seasons as the No. 5 seed in the East Regional.
Despite their first-round loss to Wisconsin, the Seminoles (25-10, 10-6 ACC) authored their best record in 16 seasons. More impressively, Hamilton club did it with fifth-year senior guard Toney Douglas leading a supporting cast which included six first-year players in the rotation.
That inexperience was the reason the Seminoles were picked to finish 10th in a preseason poll of ACC media. Rising above it led to Hamilton's selection as the National Coach of the Year by Basketball Times, to bookend his ACC Coach of the Year award.
It's an honor endorsed by a Hall of Famer.
"Leonard Hamilton, to me, is the National Coach of the Year," Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said, after the Blue Devils knocked off the 'Noles in the ACC Tournament championship game. "There was a lot of pressure on him this year."
Hamilton is not impervious to pressure, but rather embraces it. It's the reason the veteran head coach of 21 seasons has thrived while facing the task of rebuilding the Florida State program, much as he did at Miami and Oklahoma State, previously.
Still, the challenge of integrating six newcomers while replacing three of its top four scorers, prompted Hamilton to drastically alter his method of preparation.
"He's one of the most idea-conscious guys I've ever been around," FSU associate head coach Stan Jones said of Hamilton. "That's probably why he doesn't sleep much.
"When he says, 'We need look at something this way,' instead of what we've been doing it's amazing he's always right on-point. Whether it's in strategy, in recruiting or in promoting. He just has one of those minds."
So when Hamilton suggested to the coaching staff that it spend the vast majority of preseason practice introducing the defensive and offensive schemes to the newcomers - and significantly reducing the time spent on fundamentals - they were quickly on-board.
"In the 13 seasons I've been with him, he had never drastically said, 'We're just going to spend time putting in the whole in first,'" Jones said. "We had always been, 'Let's develop skills. The whole will develop as our skills get better.'
"As we had our staff meetings in the preseason, it was, 'These guys are not going to catch up to speed and then be able to do what we need to be doing, if we don't try to show them earlier what we're trying to accomplish.' It was terrific, what we've done, because these kids - particularly our defensive system - they picked up quicker than maybe some of our other teams because they understood it. It was a great move by coach."
The decision didn't necessarily appear to be a success from the outset as the Seminoles struggled to victories at Jacksonville (59-57) and LaSalle (65-61), and in the home-opener against Stetson (79-77), as they turned the ball over 18 times a game.
They certainly didn't look like a team laying the foundation for a No. 5 NCAA Tournament seed.
Yet those early struggles, in fact, helped define the kind of team Hamilton would lead to 23 regular-season victories; the most by an FSU squad since the Dave Cowens-led 1969-70 squad.
Entering the NCAA Tournament, the Seminoles had authored a nation-leading 12-3 record in games decided by five points or less.
It's no small coincidence that Hamilton's three previous teams, which ended up on the wrong side of the bubble in the eyes of the NCAA men's basketball committee, struggled mightily to prevail in close games.
"We have played so many close games that have gone that way and ended in situations like that, we understand what we are supposed to do," said 7-foot-1, red-shirt freshman center Solomon Alabi, after the 'Noles escaped Georgia Tech 62-60 in their opening game of the ACC Tournament. "We have good leaders who make sure everything is going right and that nobody is panicking. We have experienced stuff like this, so when we get into that moment we have confidence that we are going to pull it out."
Less than 24 hours after avoiding an upset at the hands of the Yellow Jackets, the Seminoles took down top-ranked North Carolina 73-70 to earn a spot in the ACC championship game.
Jones firmly believes the decision to focus on the installation of the entire defensive and offensive packages played a pivotal role, and it's hard to argue otherwise. FSU led the ACC in scoring defense and field goal defense in league play; a testament to the young team's ability to grasp its complex team defensive scheme.
"The biggest payoff we had earlier was when we were teaching and correcting the things we screwed up, the guys understood more of what we were trying to correct," Jones said.
Beyond the change in approach, Hamilton sought to challenge his team with a pre-conference schedule which featured seven games away from home. They responded by going 6-1, then managed to break even (4-4) on the road in league play. Counting the ACC Tournament in Atlanta, the 'Noles are 12-5 outside the Donald L. Tucker Center, prior to the NCAA Tournament.
"We've played a lot of games on the road; more than in the past," Hamilton said. "We felt that would give our players a chance to grow up a little bit and I think that worked in our favor.
"We played a lot of close games early and we were able to pull them out. Now our guys are a little more relaxed and they maintain their poise a little better when they're in these type of situations."
Junior college transfer and sophomore guard Derwin Kitchen, who sat out the first nine games of the season awaiting eligibility clearance, has had a unique view of the team's maturation process.
"The huddles (during timeouts) are different now," Kitchen said. "You can look at the guy across from you and you know he has confidence if his number is called. Early in the year we won close games, but now we expect to win close games."
Hamilton credit's the senior leadership of Douglas, forward Uche Echefu and one-time, walk-on Brian Hoff for facilitating the development. That, however, would not have taken place had the coach not instilled confidence in Douglas and Echefu, a pair of soft-spoken players who preferred to lead by example than vocally before their senior seasons.
Inspiring player development in a multitude of ways is one of Hamilton's greatest strengths.
"People really admire coach Hamilton because of his ability to grind a program because of his work ethic, the commitment to his players, the commitment to his staff, the commitment to all of the people around him …. because he's always been worried about everybody being able to move and be successful," Jones said.
Numerically, Hamilton's success is modest by most standards. Just 10 games over .500 entering the season, he has improved his all-time record to 331-306. The NCAA appearance was just the fifth of his career as a head coach. The Seminoles' appearance in the ACC Championship game was a first. It also marked the first time one of Hamilton's teams has recorded two conference tournament victories in one season.
That it came with his FSU career under scrutiny has likely made the season even more rewarding. Entering the season, Hamilton was the only coach in ACC history to be on the bench for a seventh season without an NCAA Tournament to show for himself.
There was much speculation that he might not garner an eighth season had the 'Noles not earned their first tournament berth since 1998, despite the fact that he has won 20 games three times in the last four seasons.
Roughly 18 months ago, Florida State president T.K. Wetherell publicly announced that Hamilton was receiving a contract extension. To this day, that extension has not been executed, though it now appears to be forthcoming.
"I'm convinced Leonard will be back at Florida State and a happy, happy, happy camper," Wetherell recently told the Associated Press.
On the heels of a breakthrough season by the Seminoles, Hamilton is certainly deserving of a new deal and all the accolades that come with it.
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