ATLANTA — Leonard Hamilton has always been the type who can look at a blank canvas and see the painting it might become, one who can see an old house and envision the restoration. When he had the chance to come to Florida State in 2002, the Seminoles were in disarray.
They had suffered through four long, losing seasons, and the basketball program was a dilapidated version of the one that had experienced short-lived success at various points in the previous decades. But, Hamilton said earlier this week, "I felt that I've always been attracted to jobs that maybe need a little fixing up."
So Hamilton, who'd rebuilt moribund programs at Oklahoma State and Miami, accepted the job, and accepted the challenge of restoring a program that had become the ACC's worst. He recounted the story on Tuesday morning, and by Tuesday afternoon Hamilton learned he had earned ACC Coach of the Year honors for the second time in four seasons.
Florida State arrived as the No. 3 seed in the ACC tournament, and the Seminoles will play Miami tonight (9 p.m.,WRAL, ESPN2) in the tournament quarterfinals. Regardless of what transpires, Florida State is a lock to make the NCAA tournament for a school-record fourth consecutive season.
The Seminoles have proven themselves to be a consistent ACC contender in recent years and after a difficult start this season, they took another significant step toward achieving Hamilton's vision.
Florida State's 12-4 finish in the ACC is tied for the best in school history, and twice in the span of one week the Seminoles (21-9) dealt crushing defeats to North Carolina and Duke. The first of those was a 33-point victory against the Tar Heels on Jan. 14, followed by a 76-73 victory at Duke on Jan. 21, when Michael Snaer made a 3-pointer at the final buzzer.
Turnaround this season
Such results seemed improbable at best and unfathomable at worst back in early January. The Seminoles limped into conference play after suffering two losses against Ivy League schools, and then began ACC play with a 20-point defeat at Clemson.
"I don't think there has been any one specific turning point," Hamilton said of his team's turnaround. "I just think that we had a lot of moving parts. We had guys that adjusted to new positions."
In some ways, the turnaround this season has mirrored the greater restoration project that Hamilton has orchestrated. In both cases, Florida State has had to overcome injuries. Hamilton has had to be patient to wait for players to develop, and for his system - focused on relentless, aggressive defense - to take hold.
Hamilton has built his program around players who will stick around for a while, and grow. FSU's core is comprised of six seniors - a mix of four-year players and those who have transferred into the program. When describing the Seminoles, Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski most often focuses on their maturity and experience.
UNC coach Roy Williams, who against FSU earlier this season suffered his worst loss with the Tar Heels, admires how technically sound Hamilton's teams have been.
"He's very sound fundamentally, particularly on the defensive end of the floor," Williams said. "He recruits like crazy ... He does a great job of getting everyone to buy into the team aspect. I mean, he just does a heck of a job coaching. You know defensively they are really good. They are really good."
Clutch offense helps
Williams repeated the last sentence twice just to get the point across. Hamilton's Florida State teams have long been known for defense but this season the Seminoles' offense has played a leading role, too. There was the 90-point outburst against UNC, and then a series of game-winning buzzer-beaters.
Snaer made two, the first against Duke and one later against Virginia Tech. Then Ian Miller, the sophomore guard, added another in a victory on March 1.
"I think it's a team that's noticed throughout the country now," UNC point guard Kendall Marshall said. "You know, you think about Duke, North Carolina, Kentucky, Kansas, obviously. But when you look within the ACC, you see Duke, Carolina and people are saying Florida State now."
During the past six seasons, Florida State has been the third most-victorious team in conference play. They have won at least 10 conference games every season since 2008-09 - a feat that only Duke can match.
Hamilton, who has long strived for respect, appreciates the progress. But he still sees what Florida State is, and what he feels it can become, and the difference between the two keeps him motivated.
Hamilton likes to say that "now is not the time to take any bows." All coaches have their favorite clichés, and this one might be Hamilton's favorite. And no, he said - it's not time for any bows now, either, not even after how far Florida State has come.
"Absolutely not," he said. "Unless you're satisfied with being third, I guess it's time to take a bow. I don't think anybody should be satisfied with just finishing third four years in a row. You want to try to be number one. And if that's your goal, then you realize you're making progress but no one's gotten a trophy."