CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Florida State junior point guard Toney Douglas didn't have to guess what was coming next.
As he waited for Virginia star Sean Singletary to advance the ball into the frontcourt for a potential winning shot, Douglas planned the perfect defense with the certainty of someone who had seen the situation play out beforehand. And in a way, he had.
"I knew he was going to a left-to-right crossover," said Douglas, who had studied Singletary as he watched several Virginia game tapes to prepare for the late January matchup. "That's one of his favorite moves to get into the lane."
And Douglas was ready for it. He cleanly stripped the ball, drew a foul then hit two free throws to give the Seminoles a 65-62 lead with 28 seconds left, a lead they wouldn't relinquish as Douglas helped his team, well, steal one.
But the guy known as FSU's "Chief Thief" has done that often. Entering today's ACC tournament opener against No. 8 seed Wake Forest (17-12), Douglas leads the league with 86 steals. That's 26 more than his closest competitor and eighth nationally. It's also the second best single-season total in school history. Sam Cassell, who had his jersey retired by FSU, had 97 steals in 1992-93.
"He has active hands, active feet and he never rests," Singletary said. "He's a good competitor, a tough competitor."
Douglas' feat is more than that. His is a unique blend of art — long arms and magician-like hand quickness — and science — laborious and sometimes tedious efforts to raise his physical fitness and court awareness.
"Toney has made an effort to improve (defensively)," FSU coach Leonard Hamilton said. "He realizes that with his background, being labeled strictly as a scorer coming out of high school and when he went to Auburn, he was one of the top scorers in the SEC, he wanted to keep improving in areas that would identify him more as being more of a complete point guard."
That's one reason the 6-foot-1, 200-pound Douglas transferred to FSU after his freshman year at Auburn and a brief flirtation with a jump to the NBA. Not that there's anything wrong with the rep as a scorer, and Douglas continues to impress with his offense.
With a scoring average of 15.8, he leads the No. 9 seed Seminoles (18-13). Defensively, however, is where he has gone to another level. Consider: He had a total of 78 steals in 61 career games coming into this season.
"The kid has magnificent hands," Wake Forest coach Dino Gaudio said. "We've got a youngster who's similar, and when I watch Toney and I watch Jeff Teague, it's uncanny how good those two kids' hands are. Chris Paul was like that. For those guys, maybe everything looks like it's going in slow motion. They can just see it and snatch it."
Although physical traits help him, Douglas spent the lazy days of summer running the stadium steps to improve his conditioning as well as running around cones on the court to improve his lateral movement. That has allowed him to doggedly stay with opposing guards.
"He's a great defender," said FSU freshman Ben O'Donnell, the former Largo High standout who has gone against Douglas almost every day in practice. "He's real good at getting tips on the ball, not only when you're dribbling but when you're trying to pass it, too. I can see how any one of his opponents could get frustrated."
He admits there have been times in practice that he has teetered on the verge of a meltdown. Miami freshman Eddie Rios can empathize. In the first half of the teams' regular-season finale in Tallahassee last weekend, he saw Douglas strip him and, in frustration, he kicked the press row table to draw a technical foul.
But the biggest difference in Douglas' game is the time he has spent studying his opponents on film to pick up on their tendencies, to realize what they do when the ball's in their hands and when they're playing without it, when they're on the break or in the halfcourt.
So when the moment comes, it's like a replay.
"You have to be able to read what's going on and anticipate a play or two plays before it happens," Virginia coach Dave Leitao said. "Then obviously there's a physical part of it, where you're strong enough and quick enough and, bottom line, good enough to be in the passing lane to get a steal or pick somebody's pocket. Toney has proven this year to be a guy who really excels in those categories."
"I've just found something that I'm good at and I just love doing it; it's fun to me," Douglas said. "And I've got to keep doing whatever I can for us to be successful."
Brian Landman can be reached at email@example.com or at (813) 226-3347.