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Florida State Seminoles are completely reliant on defense heading into NCAA Tournament

Coach Leonard Hamilton drums the concept of defense into his players from the day they arrive at 	FSU. The result: No opponent has shot more than 50 percent since the end of the 2007-08 season.

Associated Press

Coach Leonard Hamilton drums the concept of defense into his players from the day they arrive at FSU. The result: No opponent has shot more than 50 percent since the end of the 2007-08 season.

BUFFALO, N.Y.

No one wants to reveal exactly what was said. Maybe it's a privacy thing, or maybe it's just too humiliating to repeat.

Anyway, the words themselves were not that important. Florida State players knew the gist of the message by heart. They'd heard it from coach Leonard Hamilton from the time they stepped on campus and he handed them a two-page list of defensive principles that he delivered with all of the solemnity of a biblical passage.

And as far as Hamilton was concerned, they were now guilty of blasphemy. In consecutive ACC games in early January, the Seminoles had grown lazy on defense. So he was repeating his message. In a different tone. At a higher volume. With more colorful adjectives.

"A little loud? No, it got a lot loud. It probably got pretty uncomfortable for a while," assistant coach Corey Williams said. "Coach Hamilton has a way of getting guys' attention. And that was the push they needed to get them going."

They got going, all right. All the way to the program's first back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearance in nearly 20 years.

In a month made for stars, in a tournament filled with glamour, you may recognize the Seminoles as the hairy-knuckled gentlemen standing in the corner. They are not flashy. They are not dynamic. You will not find the name of a single FSU player if you search the list of the top 50 scorers in the nation. Nor will you find one in the top 150 scorers. Or the top 250 scorers, for that matter.

This is a team that knows only one way to win:

By smothering the guy with the ball.

The Seminoles were 186th in the NCAA in scoring this season. Yet they won 22 games. They were 322nd — out of 334 teams — in offensive turnovers. Yet they are a No. 9 seed. They did not get a player on the All-ACC first team. Or second team. Yet they finished third in the league.

This should tell you a couple of things. No. 1, they're not very good on offense. No. 2, they must be maniacal about defense.

"We know our offense isn't always going to be there, as people have seen," forward Chris Singleton said. "But I know every time we step on the court, our defense is there. It's something we take pride in."

It is not an easy thing, raising a team of defensive specialists. Once upon a time, these guys were stars. Every one of them. You don't land on a roster of an ACC basketball team without knowing how to put the ball in the basket in high school.

Yet they have all bought into Hamilton's defensive concepts. Maybe not happily. Maybe not immediately. But, somewhere along the line, they have learned that their success is dependent on how well they defend their own hoop.

"If you don't play defense, you're not getting on the court," junior guard Derwin Kitchen said. "Everybody figures that out pretty fast."

Florida State led the nation in field-goal percentage defense this season, holding opponents to 37.4 percent shooting. You have to go back to the end of the 2007-08 season to find a team that shot better than 50 percent from the field against FSU.

The defensive philosophy defies explanation in a single paragraph, but it is essentially a man-to-man defense with zone responsibilities. Each player covers an opponent but is also responsible for helping the teammate next to him. Along with covering a man, every FSU player is also guarding the movement of the ball.

"Coming out of Clearwater, we tried to play pretty good defense there, but it was always the second thought in my head. Offense comes first, and then defense. This is the exact opposite," said sophomore guard Luke Loucks from Clearwater High. "You almost have to switch the way your brain works when you're playing this defense. Everyone in this locker room has been chewed out at one time or another about it.

"We've all heard it: Five against the ball!"

From the time Hamilton dressed them down after giving up 77 and 88 points in consecutive games to Maryland and North Carolina State, the players have embraced the idea that defense is their salvation. Shortly after Hamilton's rant, the team held a players-only meeting to clear things up among themselves.

Since then, they have gathered for players-only meetings before every practice and game. The coaches left the hotel on Thursday afternoon to take the bus to HSBC Arena, but they were told to wait in the lobby because the players were having their meeting on the bus.

"Our guys understand, if they're not scoring, they sure as heck better be guarding," Williams said. "And now that we've had a certain amount of success, they can see the benefits. They can stay in every game, even when they're not shooting well.

"If they don't know anything else, they know this one thing; that they can guard. That's a hard point to get to, but once you're there, it gives you something you can hang your hat on."

John Romano can be reached at romano@sptimes.com.

Florida State Seminoles are completely reliant on defense heading into NCAA Tournament 03/18/10 [Last modified: Friday, March 19, 2010 12:12am]
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