CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Florida State must replace its top two players. That duo - Derwin Kitchen and NBA first-round draft pick Chris Singleton - included its leading scorer and rebounder and its top assist and steal man. Even still, outside expectations have never been higher for the Seminoles, at least around ACC country.
At the annual ACC media day, FSU was picked to finish third, behind national title favorite North Carolina and Duke. The Seminoles haven't been tabbed higher than fifth in the poll since 1992 when they last reached the Elite Eight. That team was also pegged at No. 3 by the ACC media in the preseason.
"This is the first time I have a come to media day and seven guys wanted to talk to me at one time," FSU's 10th year coach Leonard Hamilton said with a wide grin. "That means we are making progress. At least you guys know who I am. I must be moving up in the world."
The Seminoles are getting a lot more attention and respect these days following a breakthrough season that included the first NCAA Tournament win of the Hamilton era and a trip to the Sweet 16.
"I feel like we are definitely one of the heavyweights in the ACC," FSU junior guard Michael Snaer said. "People are starting to recognize us as one of the heavyweights. When we are playing Duke and North Carolina it's not David and Goliath. When those games start you don't know who is going to win."
Even Duke and North Carolina players would have to agree. Last season, FSU knocked off a No. 1-ranked Blue Devils team at home while the Tar Heels needed a clutch shot in the final seconds to escape with a win in Tallahassee.
But FSU's image change isn't built on some one-or two-game performance. Over the last three seasons, Hamilton's club has finished fourth or higher in the league standings. Duke is the only other program that can claim such a feat.
It's that consistency, combined with the return of eight of the top 10 scorers, that has many believing the 'Noles could be even better despite losing Singleton (18th pick of the Washington Wizards) and a valuable point guard in Kitchen.
Hamilton is included among those believers.
"Barring injuries and basketball demons I think this team has a chance to be improved over last year," he said. "Our big (men) have really improved ? I think maybe we will be a more complete basketball team."
The 'Noles are certainly are a more confident team after going from not being able to win an NCAA Tournament game to coming one stop short of an Elite Eight trip; VCU uspet FSU on a game-winning layup in the Sweet 16 in March.
"We can be the best team in the country," Snaer said. "Of course, there are many teams in the country that can, but most don't live up to their potential. We believe it so much that it really doesn't matter what else others think or if somebody laughs at that. The potential is there and we believe it. We believe we can make a deeper run. Last year we said it, but now we believe it. If we believed it that much last year that might have been difference and maybe we would be in the Final Four. That really made us realize we can accomplish our goals."
Snaer and his teammates also have the confidence of knowing they can win win without Singleton. The 'Noles went 3-3 when the former ACC Defensive Player of the Year was sidelined with a broken foot and won a pair of NCAA Tournament games when he was limited off the bench.
"It actually helped us figure out some things as a team on offense just because Chris was clearly the best player and with his NBA-level game we had a tendency to stop and watch him," FSU big man Bernard James said. "Especially, when he passed it's like we were standing around saying, 'What do we do now?' Ultimately, it helped us figure out how to play together more."
Figuring out how to play without Singleton and Kitchen for an entire season will require collective improvement from virtually everyone on the roster.
"We've challenged everyone to be two or three percent better in every area," Hamilton said. "That goes from having a better understanding of taking care of the ball, working on free throws in the summer, working on your off hand and having the entire team buy in."
Point guard by committee
Hamilton said he may rotate three players at point guard this season, senior Luke Loucks, transfer Jeff Peterson and Ian Miller. Loucks and Peterson have been seeing the bulk of the time at that position in practice.
The 6-foot-5 Loucks, a flashy passer, averaged just 2.9 points and 2.2 assists in back-up duty last year. But he has the best understanding of the system having spent three years in Tallahassee.
"We can see that Luke has taken his game to the next level," Snaer said. "He's going to surprise a lot of people. Many people don't expect much from him, but we do."
The 6-foot Peterson spent time at Iowa and Arkansas and was brought in despite having just one year of eligibility. He averaged 6.5 points and 2.3 assists last year for the Razorbacks.
"He's a true point guard. He's very strong with the ball," Snaer said. "You are not going to take it away from him. He's not going be silly and throw it away. That's really what we need."
Miller, a 6-foot-3 sophomore, saw most of his time on the wing last year and showed good offensive potential, averaging 5.5 points a game off the bench.
Sarge pulls double duty
James focused almost solely on two areas of his game in the offseason: Free throw shooting and shooting the ball with his right hand from the post.
The left-handed 6-foot-9 junior college transfer was so weak with his off hand last season that Hamilton and the coaches joked that if he tried to eat using his right he would stab himself in the face.
"I'm surprised more teams didn't just try and keep me from going left because that's about all I could do in the post," James said. "If I felt a defender on my right shoulder and I got the ball I passed it right back. But, I started working on individual drills one week after the VCU game and I feel like a lot more comfortable. It's coming along."
James made a big impact last year, working his way into the starting lineup before ACC play and averaging 11.4 points. 8.0 rebounds and 3.2 blocks over the last five games.
But, the former Air Force Sergeant shot just 50.4 percent (59-of-117) from the free throw line. He believes that figure will rise drastically.
"I'm aiming for 75 percent. I think that's a realistic number. I've been shooting 80 percent in practice since the summer," he said.
Outside of UNC, ACC missing stars
A lack of depth around the ACC may work in FSU's favor.
While North Carolina returns all five starters from a 29-win team and Duke has reloaded once again with the nation's No. 1 recruiting class, virtually everyone other team has huge voids to fill.
Virginia, picked fourth, must replace double-digit scorer Mustapha Farrakhan (13.5 ppg). Miami, picked fifth, will play at least the first two months of the season without its top big man, Reggie Johnson (11.9 ppg, 9.6 rpg), who underwent knee surgery.
Virginia Tech (sixth) and Clemson (seventh) each lost their top two scorers.
Boston College (12th) must replace all of its starters.
Hamilton loves what he sees
In just four practices so far, the team has already earned some lofty praise from Hamilton.
"I've been totally amazed. A lot of times it's like they are coaching themselves," he said. "A lot of times you feel like you have to give teams one of those Vince Lombardi speeches, but when we get in the huddle they are saying all the things we've been trying to instill in them over the years and they are reinforcing those things."
Assist-to-turnover ratio has been a big focus. The team had more turnovers (541) than assists (423) last season and the goal is to get that ratio at or above equal. The coaches have each charted each assist and turnover during practice. James says the total is slightly below a 1:1 ratio.
"We have got to switch that ratio around," Snaer said. Look at the national championship game last year and both teams (Butler and Connecticut) and both had positive assist-to-turnover ratios. That's one step that will take us closer. The more possessions you get without the turning the ball over the better your offense will be."
The Seminoles have finished higher than predicted in the league preseason poll each of the last four years.
James believes fellow senior big man Jon Kreft (3.2 ppg, 2.3 rpg) could be headed for a breakthrough year. "Jon is going harder than I have ever seen before since first day of practice.? He's a beast. I'm the guy that has to guard him. He's a great player. His left hand and right hand are equally developed. He's deceptively fast for how big he is. The type of year he has is going to be completely on him. He's going to get the opportunity. I think he's going to do some big things this year."
Freshman guard Terry Whisnant has impressed teammates with not only his long-range shooting ability but also his basketball I.Q. "He's a listener and a real student of the game," Snaer said. "He can really shoot. He can light it up. He has a little bit of bounce on him too. He's got to learn how to utilize it. He can handle the ball and he's not one of those guys that is going to make freshman type of mistakes."
Here's what Hamilton had to say about former Maryland coach Gary Williams no longer being in the ACC: "Maryland has always been a difficult team for us to prepare for. We haven't had much success against Mr. Williams .. He and I have a friendship that dates back many years. I'm going to miss him. I think the league is going to miss his competitive spirit. And I'm sure there will be times where people will appreciate him more than when he was here."