It wasn’t as if Florida State Coach Leonard Hamilton didn’t warn his players. After his team had beaten Louisville eight days ago to finish a remarkablesix-game run in which the Seminoles went 5-1 against ranked teams, he warned his players not to get carried away with all the oohing and aahing they were receiving nationally.
“ ’Noles now a number one seed!” screamed the bracketologists, who change their predictions on an almost hourly basis.
“FSU looks like a Final Four team,” was another Internet headline — as if early April somehow came in late January.
“I told them that what they did against those teams was impressive, but they better not let down with three straight road games coming up,” Hamilton said on Tuesday afternoon, just before he and his team flew to Atlanta to play Georgia Tech the next night. “They let up on the road in this league and they’ll pay for it. I hope they understand that.”
Apparently, they didn’t. At least not on Wednesday when Georgia Tech — the only team to beat North Carolina in ACC play so far this winter — hammered the Seminoles, 78-56, having led by 26 at halftime.
“They outplayed us, they outprepared us,” Hamilton said afterward. “Their players played better and they probably outcoached us. They were connected mentally and emotionally a lot better than we were.
“Inevitably, it seems to happen to every team every year. I hope it’s the only one we’re going to have.”
Then, on Saturday, the sixth-ranked Seminoles fell again, 82-72, at Syracuse.
The truth in Hamilton’s last comment can be found in the fact that no college basketball team has gone undefeated since 1976. The night before his sixth-ranked team got burned in Atlanta, top-ranked Villanova, second-ranked Kansas and fourth-ranked Kentucky all lost on the road .
Still, there is plenty of reason to believe the losses won’t start a prolonged slump for the Seminoles, who are 18-4 overall, 6-3 in the ACC . Hamilton has been at Florida State for 15 years. His 2011 team reached the Sweet 16 before losing by one to VCU’s Final Four team. His 2012 team won the ACC tournament. He believes this could be his best team.
“Potentially,” he said. “We’ll have to see how much we improve between now and March. I keep telling them if we want to get where we want to go in March, we have to improve every day in January and in February. It’s a good group. Most of the time, they listen.”
The Seminoles are talented and fascinating all at once. They have two seven-footers who are role players: 7-1 senior Michael Ojo and 7-4 sophomore Christ Koumadje combine to play about 24 minutes a game, averaging about nine points and five rebounds between them. But each is an intimidating defense presence on the floor and helps give Hamilton the ability to play big, small or both.
There isn’t a senior among the team’s three stars: junior forward Xavier Rathan-Mayes; sophomore guard Dwayne Bacon; and freshman center Jonathan Isaac.
At 6-7, Bacon can get his shot almost anytime he wants — he hit the winning three-pointer at Virginia to culminate a 29-point afternoon — but also passes the ball well. Isaac is a possible one-and-done, averaging more than 13 points and almost eight rebounds a game. Rathan-Mayes is the glue guy: he doesn’t score that much (10.1 points per game) but averages nearly five assists. All could come back next year. Or all could be gone.
“I don’t worry about that,” Hamilton said. “Now is certainly not the time to do that anyway. But I think we’ve recruited well and we’re in a place now if we lose some kids early, we’ll continue to be good. It’s a different time. You have to be prepared for that.”
Hamilton is 68 and has seen many different times and many different places in his coaching career. He was with Joe. B Hall at Kentucky when it won the 1978 national title and reached two other Final Fours. His first head coaching shot came at Oklahoma State, where he went from eight wins in season one to 17 in season four. He then took over a Miami program that was about to go into the Big East and promptly went 1-17 in conference play in 1991, the Hurricanes’ first season.
Nine years later, Miami tied for first in the regular season and reached the Sweet 16.
And then came Michael Jordan.
Jordan had taken over the Washington Wizards’ front office during the 1999-2000 season and was looking for a new coach after a 29-53 disaster. He landed on Hamilton. One year later, after going 19-63, Jordan went looking for a new coach again.
“I’ve never regretted it,” Hamilton insisted about his lost season in Washington. “We faced some challenges, but I thought the team was well-coached. When Michael told me he wanted to come back and play and bring back a coach he’d played for before [Doug Collins], I respected that.”
The following season, for the first time in 30 years, Hamilton wasn’t coaching. “I could have had a job,” he said. “I had college teams contacting me during the season in Washington. But I decided to wait — I’d never had a vacation. By January, when I was constantly watching two games at once in two different rooms, my wife said to me, ‘You need to go back to work.’ ”
So he did, at Florida State. Fifteen years later, only Mike Krzyzewski has been coaching in the ACC longer. What’s more, Hamilton says he isn’t going anyplace anytime soon.
“I don’t play golf, I don’t fish and I don’t like to travel very much,” he said, laughing. “I feel great and, even with all the changes, I still love doing this. I wake up every morning excited about practice, excited about the games.
“I love the relationships I have with the players — the ones here now — and the ones who I’ve coached in the past. The best thing to me isn’t winning, it’s being invited to weddings or christenings or the phone calls from guys who are about to get married or have a baby. To me, that’s winning.”
Sometime soon, Hamilton will win his 500th game as a college coach. He’s at 496 and hopes he’ll keep adding to that number for years to come. He’s the only person to win coach-of-the-year honors in both the Big East and the ACC. He’s been to the Sweet 16. He’d like to go farther than that this spring.
“We’ve got a chance,” he said. “But right now, I don’t even want to think about that. If I think about that, if the kids think about that, then we won’t be good enough in March. I know we need to get better on defense and be more consistent on offense. Believe me, I can find plenty of things to work on every day in practice. We’ve got a long way to go. I need to make sure they understand that.”
Saturday’s loss at Syracuse proved again why Hamilton was concerned about this three-game road swing. There is clearly much more to learn. Selection Sunday is six weeks away.
For more by John Feinstein, visit washingtonpost.com/feinstein.