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November 9, 2007On the surface, it's an equation that doesn't seem to add up.
Florida State lost its best player from last season ? NBA lottery pick Al Thornton ? and have no proven scorer to replace his 20 points per game. But FSU coach Leonard Hamilton sincerely thinks the Seminoles could actually be a better offensive team this season than they were in 2006-07.
"This year, we will be more of team that scores by committee," Hamilton said. "We will be less predictable. We will be more like the teams that are difficult to us to defend. We feel like we will not be as set-oriented as we have been with our system."
During his first four seasons in Tallahassee, Hamilton and his staff worked diligently to install the motion offense that was a trademark of his teams at the University of Miami.
The beauty of that offense is that there are few designed plays. Instead, the players read the positions of their defenders and make cuts or set screens accordingly. That means a point guard could find himself posting up a defender near the basket, and a shooting guard could end up setting a screen for a center on the perimeter. The options are endless.
But last season, when the Seminoles were dealt two costly blows in the off-season ? power forward Alexander Johnson left early for the NBA and star recruit Jonathan Kreft was released from his scholarship after an arrest ? the Seminoles went away from the motion game.
They reverted back to the type of set offenses that Hamilton believes are easy to defend. And even though many of those sets were designed to free up Thornton, one of the best scorers in school history, Hamilton felt that it often made his team too one-dimensional.
"Last year was so much different because we had thought we had to change our system and we did it twice because we obviously were a little bit short of certain parts and we made adjustments that we were not comfortable with," Hamilton said. "We ended up running a lot more sets and getting the ball isolated to Al. It seems this team is much further along than we have been. We have some experienced guys who basically understand the philosophies and the things we expect of them."
"By no means are we a finished product. But a huge part of our systems are in, and we are retaining them a lot better. From that standpoint, we have more things in than we normally have and we execute them better than we had in the past."
It didn't take the Seminoles long to get back in the swing of things, with three backcourt players who have a combined 12 years of experience with Hamilton's staff. Seniors Jason Rich, Isaiah Swann and Ralph Mims give the Seminoles their most experienced lineup in years ? and FSU has very high hopes for junior point guard Toney Douglas, who excelled in his first season after transferring from Auburn.
Hamilton believes Douglas, who made the switch from shooting guard to point guard after he transferred, was playing his best basketball when a hand injury forced him to miss several games late last season.
"We are encouraged by Toney," Hamilton said. "He is making strides to understand how to run a team, making decisions, and create for his teammates. These are things we have challenged him with, and he has responded in a positive way."
Florida State, which is coming off of back-to-back 20-win seasons, also will be able to lean on several other experienced players, including junior Casaan Breeden and sophomores Uche Echefu and Ryan Reid. Add to that a talented pair of freshman front-court players ? 7-foot-1 center Solomon Alabi and 6-10 forward Julian Vaughn ? and Hamilton is confident that the Seminoles will be better than many in the media believe.
At the ACC's annual preseason meetings, sports writers picked the Seminoles to finish ninth in the league.
"We like this team, and it has the potential to really surprise people," Hamilton said.
Breeden, a 6-8 junior who has been primarily a reserve throughout his career, has improved a great deal in the off-season, Hamilton said.
With the Seminoles better talent and depth in the frontcourt, Breeden will be able to return to his natural position on the perimeter.
"I think Casaan has made some of the biggest improvement on our team at this point," Hamilton said. "He has come on really strong. He runs the floor really well and he has a knack to score. We try to encourage him to play to his strengths."
On the mend
Alabi, who was heavily recruited out of high school and chose the Seminoles over Virginia and Arizona, could get off to a slower start than expected. Though FSU's coaches have been impressed with what they've seen so far, Alabi is recovering from a stress fracture that has kept him out of contact thus far.
"We will evaluate him," Hamilton said. "The good thing about him is that he has made progress every time we have evaluated him. You just have to let nature take its course. It is good. The pain is very minimal at this point. I have had youngsters play with probably where he is with his healing process but because it is a long season we want to proceed with caution and we want to make sure that we will have him completely healthy so that we won't have any setbacks when he starts playing."
The right track
Though FSU has yet to make the NCAA Tournament under Hamilton ? they are coming off of back-to-back NIT appearances ? the veteran coach said he has no doubt that the Seminoles are headed in the right direction.
"I've been in this profession for many years," Hamilton said. "I know we are doing the right thing. I know our kids are getting better. I know we are making progress. I know our kids have the right attitudes, and I know that it is just a matter of time."
FSU's offensive scheme won't be the only difference this season. Hamilton said the Seminoles also likely will use more zone schemes, which could take advantage of their new size inside.
Along with Alabi and Vaughn, the Seminoles have 6-9 Echefu and 6-8 Reid to lend a hand in the paint.
"Last year, we had very little ability to change shots inside," Hamilton said. "With the improvement of Ryan and the addition of Solomon and Julian, and even the improved interior game of Uche, I think we'll be able to be a little more like the style of ball that we've been accustomed to playing through the years."