ORLANDO – Two months after Florida State’s basketball program got off to a 6-1 start in the ACC and was receiving hype as a Final Four threat, it all ended with a resounding thud.
In Leonard Hamilton’s 15-year FSU coaching tenure, where he has often been criticized for underachieving, Saturday’s crash-and-burn exit from the NCAA tournament in a 91-66 loss to 11th-seeded Xavier at the Amway Center will be Exhibit A on that unflattering part of his resume.
Over the 70-year history of FSU basketball, the Seminoles have never looked so disheveled, so out-of-sync, so thoroughly outcoached on any big hoops stage. And that includes the 106-81 loss to Kentucky in the 1993 Elite Eight (also in Orlando), but at least those Wildcats were a No. 1 seed and FSU led at halftime.
There’s just no way to sugar-coat this deflating finish to an otherwise splendid season, which included a three-way tie for second in the rugged ACC. Yet in his post-game news conference, Hamilton sidestepped answering whether this was his biggest disappointment as a coach in any game. How could it not be?
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“Not necessarily, I’m not disappointed,” said Hamilton. “I’m proud of what we’ve been able to accomplish. That’s the nature of the game of basketball. You’re going to always have a game where you’re not at our best and a team’s at their best. It’s hard sometimes to overcome that.”
This will make for an incredibly long offseason because nobody envisioned FSU enduring such an embarrassing debacle against 11th-seeded Xavier. It marked the third time in five NCAA appearances under Hamilton that the ‘Noles bowed out to a double-digit seed.
The Musketeers put on a clinic of three-point shooting (11 of 17), exquisite passing (20 assists on 30 baskets) and splendid zone defense (FSU had 2 fastbreak points). They made the Seminoles appear like they were muddling through their first October practice, with both Hamilton and his players looking totally lost for answers.
“I don’t think [FSU] played very well, to be quite honest,” said Xavier coach Chris Mack. “I think we had a lot to do with that. I think our zones affected them. We just felt like we had to somehow figure out a way to box them in the halfcourt by not turning the ball over.
“I thought our guys played really loose and together and followed the game plan. There’s a belief within this team that we can play with anybody when we play together and we’re tough-minded, and we were today.”
In other words, Xavier was the antithesis of the Seminoles (26-9), who never found any kind of a rhythm except for a 12-2 first-half spurt that cut the Musketeers’ lead to 27-22 on a Jonathan Isaac dunk. But everything FSU did, or tried to do, after halftime was an utter failure.
The Seminoles went 7:18 without a basket at one point, missed 11 consecutive three-point shots, and saw its up-tempo, transition offense and athleticism neutered by Xavier’s aggravating 2-3 zone defense.
“Overall, you got to give Xavier credit because they got into that magic level, that emotional frame of mind you have to be in that allows you to at that peak and play sometimes even better than you normally do,” Hamilton said. “I thought they were able to get themselves in that mindset tonight.”
No doubt, part of that must be attributed to Mack’s coaching and Hamilton’s inability to find a counter-move. This was a chess game between FSU’s deep, long and athletic team and a wildly inconsistent Xavier squad. The Musketeers lost top player Edmond Sumner to a season-ending knee injury in late January, going 6-7 without him, but managed to find their form in knocking off Maryland and FSU over a 48-hour period.
For the Seminoles, who couldn’t contain Trevon Blueiett (29 points) and failed to get any production outside of Dwayne Bacon (20 points) and Xavier Rathan-Mayes (16 points), it’s going to be tough to see the bright side after such a season-ending downer.
On a day where we lost the godfather of rock’n roll, Chuck Berry, who had the hit single “Sweet Little 16,” the Seminoles looked totally lost bidding for a Sweet 16 berth.
In this all-too-brief NCAA tournament stay, FSU turned out to be a one-hit wonder. It’s going to be a long offseason for a coach who can’t seem to bring his team, no matter how talented, to an elite level.
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