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Hamilton's defense is the cornerstone

It worked at Miami, and the new 'Noles coach teaches that it must work again.

By BRIAN LANDMAN, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published November 24, 2002


It worked at Miami, and the new 'Noles coach teaches that it must work again.

TALLAHASSEE -- Standing on the side of the court, new Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton gets that look, the one with the wry smile, and calmly but forcibly squelches the din.

"Come on, guys," he pleads as the action instantly halts.

"Don't think. React. Just be a player. You've got to believe."

He delivers his message with the passion of an evangelist, the sternness of a U.S. Marine Corps drill instructor and, usually, the patience of an elementary school teacher.

Lesson I: Defense.

Hamilton may be renowned for his recruiting prowess, shown again with a hastily assembled but potentially rich trio in April and a top-10 class of three recruits this month. But his most indelible signature is a tenacious man-to-man defense.

"That's going to be our niche," said junior forward Michael Joiner, the lone returning starter. "Defense is what makes great teams. The new coaching staff has been harping on defense, defense, defense since Day 1." During Steve Robinson's last four years, the Seminoles lost 17, 17, 21 and 17 games. They also failed to finish better than sixth in the powerful Atlantic Coast Conference. Despite a win against then-No. 1 Duke in January, the Seminoles faded to a tie for seventh.

And gone from last season's club are four starters who averaged 43.9 points (61 percent of the team total), 17.3 rebounds (45 percent) and 8.9 assists (67 percent).

Good thing Hamilton, who makes his FSU debut today against Savannah State, likes a challenge.

He has a big one. But it's no more daunting than the one he faced when, after four years at Oklahoma State, he took over Miami in 1990. The program had virtually no tradition and no oncampus arena. And there was a talent deficiency. "We were not a very good offensive team during those years when we were developing an identity, and we realized if we wanted to win games we had to be consistent with our defense," Hamilton said.

Offense requires natural gifts: quickness, height, strength, ballhandling and/or shooting touch. Defense, Hamilton insists, requires none.

"It's about desire, concentration and focus," he said. Players had to grasp the nuances of his system so well they instinctively could move to the right spots and help teammates close down the baseline.

During his last four seasons at UM the Hurricanes were nationally ranked in field-goal percentage defense, including a No. 1 ranking in the '97-98 season (37.9 percent). They reached the NCAA Tournament that season for the first time since 1960.

In 1999-2000, his final season before bolting for the NBA and the Washington Wizards, the Hurricanes contested almost every shot (39.4 field-goal percentage defense) and held teams to 62.6 points a game to reach the Sweet 16 for the first time. That team averaged 69 points, one of Hamilton's best offenses in his decade in South Florida.

"The success he had at Miami was built around ... good players, nice offense and they defended the hell out of you," Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun said. "They became as tough in the halfcourt, like Georgetown was in fullcourt under John (Thompson). In the halfcourt set, you might find five or six guys in the country that do as good a job as Leonard. I used to kid him that he found religion, he found defense."

The man known to his players as Coach Ham is trying to get his Seminoles to be similarly enlightened.

"Defense is stressed every day," said point guard Nate Johnson, who played for a former Hamilton assistant, Pat Smith, at Moberly Area Community College and is a bit more familiar with Hamilton's system and philosophies than his teammates. "It's hard work, day in and day out. ... But if you can't play defense, you won't be on the floor."

Hamilton had to say that only once.

"They harp much more on our defensive mistakes than our offensive mistakes," Joiner said.

"If you make a mistake he won't tear you apart," Johnson said. "He'll let you know what you did wrong so you can get it right the next time. But you can't keep messing up."

Then he'll raise his voice, give you that look, and you'll be out of the game.

"With Leonard, there's no ifs, ands or buts; that didn't seem to be in his vocabulary," Calhoun said. "That's the thing that changed them (the Hurricanes) dramatically."

Hamilton recognizes that learning his system and mastering it will take time. Perhaps a good bit of time based on two exhibition games. Team Nike shot 51.7 percent from the field in an 87-84 overtime win. A week later, EA Sports shot 44.4 percent in an 80-74 loss.

"There were times in the game that we played with that type of aggressiveness," he said after the EA Sports game, referring to the attitude his UM teams routinely demonstrated. "And there were times when we backed off. ... We have to stay at the peak, especially if we want to be successful with this team."

FIVE KEYS TO VICTORY

1. DEFEND, DEFEND, DEFEND: Leonard Hamilton's teams are known for holding opponents to less than 40 percent shooting. That is this team's best, perhaps only, shot to be competitive.

2. PICKETT'S CHARGE: JUCO transfer Tim Pickett figures to give FSU a consistent 3-point threat. He hit 15 of 31 in two exhibition games. FSU was eighth in the ACC last season, averaging six.

3. CENTER STAGE: Seniors Trevor Harvey and Mike Mathews must give FSU interior scoring and rebounding. They have been mercurial in the past and seemingly have been slow to pick up Hamilton's systems.

4. PLAY LIKE MIKE: Forwards Michael Joiner and Anthony Richardson, imports from North Carolina, have been inconsistent. Joiner was an All-ACC rookie pick and then slumped (7.8 ppg). Richardson (7.2 ppg) showed flashes of brilliance that made him a McDonald's All-American. Each must show up every night.

5. SURVIVE THE START: A young team like this could use a soft schedule to gain confidence as well as a firmer grasp of the system. But FSU meets Iowa, Florida, Miami, North Carolina and possibly Arizona before the new year.

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