Friday, August 17, 2018
Sports

Jones: This just in, Leonard Hamilton and FSU exit early again in NCAA Tournament

ORLANDO — As the seconds dwindled down, Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton made the slow and all-too-familiar walk to center court to congratulate the opposing coach. That's how FSU's basketball season ended Saturday night.

That's how every FSU basketball season ends under Hamilton.

In disappointment. In frustration. In failure.

Another promising season down the tubes. Another season full of hope wiped out by a baffling loss. Another chapter in the book of a program that gets you all giddy in January but simply doesn't have what it takes to navigate its way through March.

The Seminoles won 26 games. They beat heavyweights such as Florida, Duke, Louisville and Notre Dame. They went undefeated at home.

So what? For all the success, for all the promise, this Seminoles season will be remembered for how it ended: a loss before the end of the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament to a team seeded eight spots below it in the bracket.

The 'Noles played what might have been their worst game of the season in the biggest game of the season. And when you really think about it, there's no excuse for what happened Saturday.

Everything was lined for FSU to make the Sweet 16 for just the second time in Hamilton's 15-year tenure. What else could the Seminoles have wanted?

They were a No. 3 seed playing a No. 11 in 13-loss Xavier, an upset winner over Maryland on Thursday. They were playing just down the road in Orlando, practically a home game. Their roster, which includes two likely NBA first-round draft picks, was deeper and more talented than Xavier.

And they lost. By 25!

Two questions come to mind. How does that happen? And are you really all that surprised?

"I'm proud of what we've been able to accomplish, but that's the nature of basketball," Hamilton said. "You're going to always have a game when you're not going to be at your best."

That was FSU on Saturday. Actually, that has been FSU for the past month.

The Seminoles got everyone all excited by starting 18-2 and getting to No. 6 in the country. Since then, they went 8-7, including Saturday's loss that was never competitive in the second half. Maybe that's who they really were all along, a .500 team that could get blown out by anybody.

"I thought we played some very good competition," Hamilton said when asked about FSU's late-season collapse. "We got caught playing some people who were playing at a high level."

See, that's what good programs do. They get better as the season goes along. They play their best when it matters most. They don't get worse. They don't get exposed. They don't get outplayed and outcoached.

Saturday showed the difference between a team that knows how to play this time a year and one that doesn't. FSU was just fine until Xavier decided to pack in its zone defense midway through the first half. FSU acted as if it never had seen such a thing.

Its coach couldn't figure out a way to crack the zone, and its players couldn't shoot over it, missing 17 of 21 3-pointers. Even Xavier coach Chris Mack couldn't help but state the obvious when talking about Florida State:

"I don't think they played very well, to be honest. I think we had a lot to do with that."

It's hard to beat up a guy like Hamilton because he seems like such a decent fellow. But do you know how many NCAA Tournament games Hamilton has won in 15 seasons at FSU? Four. And he has lost five. Shouldn't Florida State expect better than that?

"I did tell them that I thought we had a great season," he said. "Every team has some weaknesses and some shortcomings and some strengths. I thought we did a very good job all year long by playing to our strengths."

But on Saturday, it played to its weakness. It couldn't shoot when it mattered. It couldn't play defense when it mattered. It couldn't win when it mattered.

Just like every year at Florida State.

You think FSU fans would be angry at this point. But they have more important matters to tend to.

Like spring football.

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