On Florida State, Leonard Hamilton, and Puzzling Losses…Posted by mpatton on December 3rd, 2012
Florida State has been to the NCAA Tournament in each of the last four years. Leonard Hamilton‘s conference records during those years are (chronologically): 10-6, 10-6, 11-5, and 12-4. Last year the Seminoles were two games from tying North Carolina for the top spot in the ACC despite beating Duke and the Tar Heels (their only loss on Tobacco Road last year came at home against the Blue Devils). What held them back? A 20-point beatdown at the hands of a mediocre Clemson team to open conference play and the conference upset of the year against Boston College.
But don’t stop with conference play. Last year the Seminoles also lost to two Ivy League schools; the year before they were Auburn’s lone non-conference win against a power conference school. The years 2008-10 were much smoother, as Hamilton’s squad escaped with only a head-scratcher at home against Sidney Lowe’s NC State and a 14-point loss at a middling Northwestern squad, respectively. This year looks like more of the same, as Florida State has already lost to Southern Alabama and Mercer (at home). But what is it about these games? Are they a product of Hamilton’s system? Or are they a part of it? It may be a little of both. I don’t believe for a second that Hamilton wants those losses. But I wouldn’t be surprised if he expected them.
Hamilton’s system is based on physically aggressive defense that shuts down the paint and forces turnovers. But defense can’t win games on its own. North Carolina — especially under Roy Williams — can withstand poor defensive efforts from its players. Eventually their shots will start falling, they’ll get out in transition, and run the opponent into the ground. The run will come eventually, and it’s normally enough to outlast weaker non-conference opponents.
But defense won’t create 20-0 runs in a matter of seconds. It’s a product of the body blows from the Tar Heels’ transition offense or Duke’s three-point haymakers. You can’t just start locking down a team the last 10 minutes of action; it’s got to be for the whole game, wearing out an opponent, forcing them to take contested threes, while slowly the clock ticks toward zero and the game gets out of reach. The fact is defense starts with effort, and it’s difficult to play your hardest on that end against teams like Mercer or South Alabama. Those aren’t games with big circles on the calendar coming into the year. They’re the trap games.
This year’s team is a little different. Maybe it’s because Hamilton is relying more on freshmen than he ever has in the past. Maybe it’s because there’s not a polished shot-blocker to anchor his front line. Maybe it’s because for the first time I can remember, the Seminoles’ offense looks better than their defense. But I still expect this team to figure it out as the freshmen get more experience. Hamilton will make this an elite defensive team. Or they’ll cut back on turnovers and become an elite offensive team. The bad loss column is full. We’ll know more about the Seminoles Wednesday against Florida. The Gators might win by 20 and leave us wondering whether this is the year Hamilton’s team finally slips. Or the Gators may join the list of top 10 teams to go into Tallahassee favored and come out with a loss that will echo the past four seasons.