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Seminoles endure trying season, again

Florida State's program has regressed, but athletic director Dave Hart sees a bright future ... with coach Steve Robinson.

By BRIAN LANDMAN

© St. Petersburg Times, published March 8, 2001


ATLANTA -- Florida State coach Steve Robinson hasn't needed to follow the Atkins plan to shed unwanted pounds.

As his team's losses weighed more heavily on him this season, off came the weight. Almost a pound a loss.

The Seminoles enter tonight's ACC tournament opener against Clemson with a 9-20 record, 4-12 in the league. They haven't lost this many games since the 1951-52 season.

"It's been a long season; it's been a tough season," Robinson said.

To FSU fans, the team's second-place finishes in the ACC (the 1991-92 and 1992-93 seasons) and trips to the Sweet 16 and the Elite Eight, respectively, must seem like ancient history. During Pat Kennedy's final four years, the Seminoles never won more than six league games and had one post-season appearance, the NIT in 1997.

From the 1996-97 season, Kennedy's last before moving to DePaul, season-ticket sales are down about 1,200 to 3,542 and the announced crowds at the Tallahassee-Leon County Civic Center have dropped by more than 2,000 to an average of 5,012.

"At some point, you have to have a product that consistently will warrant people's enthusiasm," athletic director Dave Hart said. "It's been an eight-year challenge. That's why I did think there'd be a dip before we'd have a foundation that would allow us to make consistent progress."

No one thought the dip would be this pronounced, this lengthy. In Robinson's first year, the Seminoles advanced to the second round of the NCAA Tournament.

"I thought, 'Boy. We've got a great thing going. We've built a spark, now we jump on that and we pound it from there,' " said Robinson, 43, who earns about $400,000 annually on a contract that runs through the 2002-03 season. "But we didn't catch fire like I wanted and thought we would."

FSU's win total has fallen from 18 to 13 to 12 to this season's 9, defying conventional wisdom that there should be measurable progress in the fourth year of a rebuilding project.

But the defections of forward Randell Jackson to the 1998 NBA draft (he wasn't picked) and promising 7-foot-2 sophomore center Karim Shabazz (he transferred to Providence) five games into the 1998-99 season forced Robinson to take chances on big men -- gambles that didn't pay off.

Then there's the punishing ACC schedule. Duke, North Carolina, Maryland, Virginia and Wake Forest have been ranked in the Top 25 throughout this season and Georgia Tech has emerged as an NCAA Tournament-caliber team.

A young FSU team started off poorly. In December the Seminoles lost at home to Furman, a team with eight consecutive losing seasons, lost at home by 15 to South Florida and lost at Cleveland State, which had never beaten an ACC team. FSU began conference play 0-7, its worst start since joining the ACC in 1992.

And after finally getting a conference win, against Clemson on Jan. 31, FSU followed with an embarrassing 100-58 loss to Duke.

There have been glimmers of hope since then.

In mid-February, the Seminoles upset Maryland in Cole Field House 74-71, then lost to Virginia 69-66 on a last-second three-pointer. After two lopsided losses at UNC and N.C. State, the Seminoles closed the regular season with wins against Georgia Tech and Clemson.

"There was a stretch midway through the season where they looked pretty much dead in the water, but Steve's got them playing hard," Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt said.

Credit Robinson's intensity and the maturation of his finest recruiting class: freshman forward Michael Joiner, guard Monte Cummings, a junior college transfer, and freshman guard Andrew Wilson.

"He's got some good, young players and he's got some good kids coming in," ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said. "The thing that is most encouraging or should be most encouraging for people who care about Florida State basketball is that they've made some really great strides over the last month. There are a lot of notables like DePaul and Seton Hall who have packed it in. Florida State not only hasn't packed it in, they've gotten better."

In a climate in which a Hall of Fame coach like Denny Crum can be shown the door, Hart has decided his first major coaching hire deserves to return.

"How much time is enough time is a fair question," Hart said. "Our fans want us to be good. I'm like them. I'm competitive to a fault. I want us to be good, too, but I have to look at the bigger picture."

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