TALLAHASSEE, Fla. (AP) — Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton says he gets his greatest enjoyment out of building, whether it is basketball programs or a large DVD collection of live shows. With Florida State returning to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2012, many are giving Hamilton plaudits for constructing what most say is his best team.
Florida State, the No. 3 seed in the West Regional, faces Florida Gulf Coast (26-7) on Thursday in Orlando. The 25 wins are tied for the most the Seminoles have had in Hamilton’s 15 years at the school.
The Seminoles (25-8) finished second in the Atlantic Coast Conference this season after coming in 12th last year. Despite the improvement, Hamilton was a distant fourth in Coach of the Year balloting.
“Georgia Tech finishes 12th in the league this season and has the Coach of the Year,” guard Xavier Rathan-Mayes said. “I feel like he’s disrespected and we’re going to try and go make it right for him.”
Hamilton said he isn’t concerned about the lack of recognition, but is the first to point out that the absence from the tournament in recent years means there is more to prove and live up to this week.
Florida State made four straight NCAA trips from 2009-12, including a spot in the Sweet 16 in 2011 — when it lost to eventual Final Four participant VCU — and an ACC Tournament title the following year before dropping off. The nadir came in 2014-15 when the Seminoles failed to make even an NIT appearance.
That is why when the bracket was announced on Sunday, FSU was the chic pick for a first-round upset.
“A lot of changing the perception is on us,” Hamilton said. “Programs that are rich in tradition and successful will always get the benefit of a doubt. They’ve earned that right. We have not.
“A lot of people have us in the category of wait and see. I’m not offended by it.”
A hallmark of successful previous Hamilton teams has been tough defenses, but they were often difficult to watch. During the offseason he switched his philosophy from a motion offense that relies on strong inside play to one that is more up-tempo with versatile perimeter players. FSU is averaging 82.5 points per game, the most by a Hamilton squad.
The Seminoles have the tallest team in the tournament field with an average height of 6-foot-8, but they have players with size and quickness. Freshman Jonathan Isaac, who is 6-10 and averaging 11.9 points and 7.6 rebounds per game, has the height of a forward but the athleticism of a guard. Christ Koumadje, the tallest player in school history at 7-4, also has quickness.
“I’ve always wanted to play at that pace, but the challenge is keeping that same intensity defensively,” he said. “In the past we’ve always been defensive conscious because we haven’t been tremendously gifted offensively.”
The reason why they are able to play at a fast pace is due to 12 players averaging eight minutes or more per game. Leading scorer Dwayne Bacon (16.9 points) and Rathan-Mayes, who is averaging 10.4 points and led the ACC in assist/turnover ratio, are averaging four fewer minutes per game this season.
Florida State was ranked as high as sixth — its first regular-season appearance in the top 10 in 24 years — after going 5-1 during a stretch when it faced six straight ranked teams. Since then, the Seminoles have gone 7-6 and they finished 16th in the final Associated Press Top 25 poll.
Hamilton feels as though he has the program built for another streak of trips to the tournament, even if Bacon and Isaac decide to enter the NBA draft after this season. The veteran coach knows, however, that final impressions about this season are still being formed.
As Hamilton noted earlier in the week with one of his favorite sayings, the cake is about to come out of the oven.
“When you have these opportunities, we have to take advantage of them. The fact we were the 3 seed showed the NCAA looked at the quality of what we were able to accomplish,” he said.