Hamilton, Seminoles stunning in NCAA tournament run


Coach Leonard Hamilton chats with Phil Cofer, left, and CJ Walker during a break in the action against
Michigan. Photo special to the Outlook

By St. Clair Murraine

Outlook staff writer

While the finish in the Elite Eight of the NCAA wasn’t what FSU basketball fans were expecting, the Seminoles were still getting plenty of praise for their amazing run up to their loss to Michigan.

Yet, coach Leonard Hamilton was being second-guessed by Monday morning quarterbacks. They questioned his decision not to foul with Michigan holding a four-point lead with 11 seconds on the clock.

But considering that the Seminoles got as far as they did without a player who is expected to be a top draft pick, supporters of the program are finding it hard to understand the wrangling.

There is so much that the average fan doesn’t know about getting as far as the Seminoles did, said Drew Rutledge, who played for FSU when Hamilton took the team to the Sweet 16 in 2011. It’s the farthest the Seminoles had gotten into the Big Dance before their run that ended with a four-point loss Saturday night.

“I don’t think the public understands all the pressure that goes along with being a student-athlete,” said Rutledge. “It amplifies when you’re on a big stage.”

In part, said Rutledge, fans have a tendency to compare every other college program to Duke and North Carolina. Both programs have won multiple NCAA tournament championships.

FSU should be given credit for making the kind of run it did with a lineup made of young players, including walk-ons, said Eli Bryant. The Rickards boys’ coach said he has been following Hamilton’s career most of his 30 years as a college and NBA coach, adding that FSU’s finish was remarkable.

“It was not a surprise to me because coach Hamilton has always stressed defense,” Bryant said. “They were a good defensive team (and) it’s a testament of (Hamilton’s) ability to get them to believe in themselves.

“It was a great coaching job. There isn’t any top player at Florida State. These were a bunch of guys who came in and trusted the system and the coaching staff. They got a tremendous amount of success this year and look to have a tremendous amount of success next year.”

However, he said fans should consider how Hamilton has gotten the program through some rough patches over the 16 seasons that he’s been head coach.

“I think people are coming back into the fold because they know he knows what he is doing,” Rutledge said. “He is an amazing coach, an amazing mentor, and person. I think that everyone in Tallahassee would be amazed if they had 20 minutes to sit down and talk with coach Ham.”

But despite the naysayers, faithful fans like longtime FSU supporter Rev. R.B. Holmes refuses to hear the noise. Especially since the Seminoles beat the odds to reach the Elite Eight.

“We are so proud of Coach Hamilton, his (assistant) coaches and basketball players,” said Holmes, publisher of the Capital Outlook. “This team exhibited high energy, perseverance, team spirit and sportsmanship.

“Most people did not expect this team to reach the Elite Eight. But the players and coaches believed in themselves and because of that kind of faith, this will go down in history as one of FSU’s best basketball seasons. The 18 strong gave us an elite finish; not an elite defeat.”

Throughout the tournament, the Seminoles relied on their defense. Eventually, they adopted the “18 Strong” mantra, wearing it across the chest of their warm-ups.

It was a demonstration of the trust the 18 players developed in each other over the last half of the season.

Rutledge suggested that a handful of players raised their NBA stock with the performance in the tournament.

“When you get to play in a nationally televised game and you do well in those games, it’s better than sitting at home,” said Rutledge, a real estate lobbyist. “Just because I’ve been there before, I know how many NBA scouts sit in those front rows.”