This might have been Florida State’s moment. For the first time, the Seminoles finished atop the ACC regular-season standings. They entered the conference tournament 26-5. They figured to be no worse than a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. The first Saturday in April could well have found them in a Final Four semi in the big building off Northside Drive.
Reality interceded. FSU’s season ended just before noon on March 12, as the Seminoles were readying for an ACC quarterfinal against Clemson in Greensboro, N.C. In the days since, coach Leonard Hamilton has been hunkered down in Tallahassee, engaged in Zoom-enhanced recruiting. “I’m not just sitting around the house,” he said. “We’ve got to sign three more guys, and then we’ve got to sign four or five for the fall. Our phones are stuck to our ears.”
He spared a half-hour Friday to speak of what might have been. Let the record reflect that this correspondent, in an utterly moot bracket, picked Florida State as the mythical NCAA 2020 champ. Informed of this, Hamilton didn’t dismiss the possibility.
“That’s what our plan was,” he said. “We felt from the beginning – and from the end of last year – that we had a team coming back that could compete for the national title.”
This wasn’t a consensus opinion. The team that would finish No. 4 in the final Associated Press poll – behind Kansas, Gonzaga and Dayton – didn’t crack the preseason Top 25. (It was fifth among teams also receiving votes.) Even though the 2018-19 Seminoles won 28 games and beat Virginia, which would win it all, in the ACC tournament semis, FSU was afforded its usual short shrift coming into the new season. Then it opened with a loss at Pittsburgh.
Said Hamilton: “We were still trying to integrate six new players into a system. Losing that game and then having to go play the next game against Florida, who at that time was ranked sixth in the country, those circumstances brought us closer together and fueled us to accelerate the progress. It kick-started our season.”
Florida State won by 12 in Gainesville. The Seminoles would win 16 of their next 17 games. The previous two seasons had ended with a Sweet 16 loss to Gonzaga and an Elite Eight defeat by Michigan. FSU was building toward something. This season appeared to be it.
Hamilton: “We felt that way. We felt that we had a chance. It was an interesting mix. The strength of our team was the culture that we’ve been able to develop. … We’ve always said we win games by committee. This team bought totally into that. We share playing time, we share the ball. We play to exhaustion, and guys are asking to come out of the game so they can stay fresh, and they’re confident that whoever comes in for them will give the same level of effort.”
It wasn’t a star-spangled crew. No Seminole made first-team all-ACC. (Hamilton, however, was a near-unanimous choice for coach of the year.) Eleven averaged nine or more minutes. Eight different players started games.
Hamilton: “We play with a level of confidence that is sometimes above our talent. We’ve won nine straight overtime games. We’re 39-9 in one-possession games since 2012. That’s because they’re confident and no one’s forcing shots. That takes a team that’s connected, that doesn’t mind sharing the ball, that’s confident in each other and the system we have. We felt pretty good (about March). We were ready. Unfortunately, we came up a little short.”
It was the season that stopped short. On March 11, the NCAA announced that, due to COVID-19, its tournament would be played before intimate gatherings of families and friends. Taken aback, the major conferences – some of which had already begun staging their tournaments – scurried to follow suit. At 10 a.m. on March 12, ACC commissioner John Swafford told the media assembled in Greensboro that the ACC convocation would continue, just without fans. Hamilton, whose team was to play at noon, was less certain.
“I had an uneasy feeling,” he said. “The fact that we were having the game under circumstances where a limited number of people could see it, that was a little unsettling. That means that whatever is going on with this virus is serious. I get on the bus with the coaches, and I said, ‘Fellas, I don’t believe we’re going to end up playing this game.’ ”
At the Coliseum, the FSU players were about to take the floor for warmups when athletic director David Coburn pulled Hamilton aside. The tournament had been canceled. Hamilton allowed his players to go through their pregame drills, just so they’d have a memory, albeit brief, of the 2020 ACC tournament. When they returned for to the locker room for final instructions, he informed them there’d be no game.
“I told them in life that sometimes in life we’re faced with challenges that are unavoidable. We had the moans and the groans and what I call the stink-faces, but I explained that the decision had been made in the safety and best interests not only of them but of their parents and everybody involved. We would have more games to coach, and they would have more opportunities to play, but if something unfortunate was to happen to someone who would get the virus, that would be far worse than the enjoyment and pleasure we would receive from playing. We had to be mature about it and accept it and understand it.”
Then the Seminoles were summoned to the court. Swofford handed them the trophy that usually goes to the ACC tournament winner. Hamilton: “It was a little interesting and somewhat puzzling for a moment. You had a different feeling because competitors like to compete. Our players accepted it. We went back thinking we would prepare for the NCAA tournament, but I had a feeling in my stomach that this season had come to an abrupt end.”
The NCAA tournament was canceled at 4:07 p.m. There would be no One Shining Moment for the Seminoles, or for any team. For Hamilton, who’s 71, the best of the 32 teams he has assembled as head coach was left without its ultimate proving ground. Does he wonder if his best chance at a Final Four was yanked away?
“I feel like we’ve had several shots to get to the Final Four,” he said. “I’m not obsessed with winning a national title. I’m obsessed with creating a team that reaches its full potential. I thought this team was in that category, one of the teams we’ve had here that could compete for a national championship. I don’t cry over spilled milk. If you notice, I don’t get emotional one way or another. I try to stay even-keel. Because I’ve stood on the (net-snipping) ladder, because I’ve been to the three Final Fours (as a Kentucky assistant), because I’ve been part of winning the national championship (Kentucky in 1978), I want this for Florida State and our basketball team.”
Then: “I don’t feel any different today than I felt when I was 35. I feel the same level of energy and commitment, the work ethic, the focus. I’m enjoying it more now than I ever have. I really feel the Seminole unconquered spirit. I want so much for our team and our university to enjoy the experiences that I have had. The only thing that has affected me is that I’m more determined, more driven, more excited. I’m putting in every available waking moment I have, I’m trying to do everything I can to put us in the best position we can be in.”
For Florida State, the road did not end in Mercedes-Benz Stadium. Semifinal Saturday will find Atlanta – indeed, all of Georgia – under a shelter-in-place directive. The NCAA tournament that might have been is the tournament that never was.
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