ANAHEIM, Calif. — If human bonding and collaboration are indeed desirable matters, then the most appealing team remaining in the NCAA tournament would be Florida State, the No. 4 seed primed to find No. 1 Gonzaga on Thursday for a West Region semifinal rematch.
When Florida State and Gonzaga finished playing last March in the same spot in the tournament and about 28 miles up the road in Los Angeles, Gonzaga Coach Mark Few had absorbed both “a tough, tough loss,” by 75-60 , and an impression.
“Leonard,” he said, “does a great job of getting 11 of them in, and gets them in early. That’s hard to do.”
“Leonard” would be Leonard Hamilton, the 70-year-old who looks a quarter-century younger after spending 12 seasons as an assistant at Kentucky, then head-coaching four seasons at Oklahoma State, 10 at Miami and 17 at Florida State. Having spent his past 26 seasons in leagues rife with basketball aristocracy, Hamilton has had to find a way to stay afloat, so this Hamilton is a beacon of collaboration, like that other “Hamilton.”
Of the 16 teams remaining in the tournament, only Florida State features 11 players with at least 300 minutes played this season. Florida State’s top 11 scorers go like this: 13.4 points per game, 11.6, 9.0, 7.5, 7.4, 6.6, 6.4, 5.9, 4.5, 4.0, 2.8 — and here’s a nugget to warm the collaborative heart: The guy with 13.4, Mfiondu Kabengele, doesn’t start.
Still, it’s the little anecdotes from within that framework that might widen eyes. Hamilton told one Wednesday, from Saturday night’s second-round game against Murray State. Florida State, it turns out, is that rare team with players willing to remain on the bench.
“For instance, the other night,” Hamilton said, Kabengele (the 6-foot-10 giant) “came to me begging me not to put him back in the game because he wanted Christ [Koumadje, the 7-4 giant] to have minutes. So I put Mfiondu back in the game, and he faked, I say, like he was tired so Christ could get more minutes.”
That followed upon last year here when, Hamilton said, “Mfiondu was playing well . . . and I asked Phil [Cofer] to give him a blow, and he didn’t want to be in the game because he wanted Mfiondu to have a level of success.”
Florida State (29-7) has constructed its players steadily toward its present-day depth (formidable), length (formidable), experience (formidable) and discipline (formidable). “We live in a microwave generation,” assistant Charlton Young said Wednesday. “Everybody wants success in thirty seconds. The best meals take time to prepare.”
There’s also the one about too many cooks in a kitchen, but the Seminoles override that, too. Their motto “18 Strong” conveys the whole roster and seems apt even at a stage of the year chockablock with bonded teams.
“It’s a unique deal,” Young said. “You don’t see it much. Most kids and their families are extremely selfish. But I think they all know if we all buy in, and we win a championship, then everybody’s going to be successful.”
Somehow, Few and Gonzaga (32-3) looked next door in the West Region and found this Florida State lot again, amid a bizarro near-rerun in which a region that had Gonzaga, Florida State, Michigan and Texas A&M in 2018 somehow got Gonzaga, Florida State, Michigan and Texas Tech this year.
Speaking of college players, Few said: “Most of these guys want to play 40 minutes and don’t ever want to come out. My guys don’t like coming out of games. It’s just a great job by him and his staff, setting the culture that, A, when you’re out there you’re going to play crazy-hard and give it everything you’ve got, and, B, you’re passing the baton to the next guy, and he’s fine with that.
“I think that’s probably the most difficult thing in that. Then they obviously do a wonderful job in explaining that in recruiting, too, because usually when you are recruiting, everybody wants to start and wants to shoot and wants to play 40 minutes a game. I tip my hat to what they’ve been able to do there, and it’s a system that certainly has worked well and worked very well.”
Senior forward PJ Savoy doesn’t remember being recruited that way per se but said: “They can just see it in you. They come and tell you, ‘We’re looking to play 11 guys.’ And so it’s intriguing.”
Hamilton’s 17 years in a football town have seen him reach seven NCAA tournaments, reach the Sweet 16 in 2011 and the final eight in 2018, reach this height in 2019 through his own, thoughtful slow cooking. When he joined Miami in the early 1990s, he said, Miami soon joined the Big East “with Syracuse, Georgetown, St. John’s and Villanova. So it would be foolish for me to think that I was going to show up getting the same level of players that I was competing against. So we had to develop a system that allowed us to compete. We feel that we need to win games by committee, to have the full sum of our parts working together to be successful.”
Because the Big East had not been unforgiving enough, he wandered on into the ACC, and he can reel off some numbers about teams in the conference and where they rank on the all-time wins list, including: North Carolina (third entering this season), Duke (fourth), Syracuse (sixth), Notre Dame (eighth), Louisville (10th) and North Carolina State (26th).
“And it goes on and on in our league,” Hamilton said. “So what we try to do is have good players that play extremely hard and play unselfish, and we’ve created a culture where they cheer for one another.”
If any team could grapple with such devastation as last week, with the death of Cofer’s father, former NFL linebacker Mike Cofer, and if any team could channel its grief into a cohesive focus that purposely honored the departed, it would seem to be this one. That’s even as, Hamilton said, “When you’re dealing with things like this, you never know exactly what’s the right thing to do.”
They have come all the way from a three-game losing streak in January that left them at 13-5, and they have gone 16-2 since then, losing only at North Carolina and to Duke in the ACC tournament final. After they crushed Murray State, 90-62, on Saturday, they returned to Tallahassee — though Cofer returned to his family in Georgia, where he will remain for his father’s funeral this weekend. The rest, just about the entire unit as usual, went to a movie, said Anthony Polite, that rare 11th man with a significant role.
They saw Jordan Peele’s “Us,” and while a horror movie about doppelgängers might not fit, its title did.