Hamilton fosters Florida State’s unselfish spirit in NCAAs
LOS ANGELES (AP) — Florida State takes its win-by-committee philosophy seriously.
The Seminoles crowded six players on the dais with coach Leonard Hamilton for Friday’s news conference at Staples Center. They were only required to bring five, but nobody gets left out on this team, including the walk-ons.
Most coaches shorten their bench the closer they get to the Final Four, but Hamilton won’t consider going away from his 11-man rotation. As a result, every player believes they are equally as important as their teammates.
“The coaches preach all the time it’s going to be a different guy every night,” forward Phil Cofer said. “Everybody is definitely locked into helping each other.”
Ninth-seeded Florida State (23-11) plays No. 3 seed Michigan (31-7) on Saturday in the West Region final. A victory would move the Seminoles into the Final Four for the second time in school history. They lost to UCLA in the 1972 national championship game.
“We always envisioned this and we always talked about it,” guard Terance Mann said, “so to finally be here definitely means a lot.”
The Seminoles have knocked off three higher-seeded teams in the NCAA Tournament, including No. 1 Xavier in the second round.
Each opponent experienced Florida State’s so-called junkyard defense, a scrappy mindset embodied by pressuring the ball and going after little things like steals and deflections.
“Playing hard to exhaustion,” Cofer adds. “That’s one of the key things of our junkyard defense.”
At one time, the Seminoles kept a picture of a dog with a collar in the locker room and each player touched it on their way to the court.
“We want to be like junkyard dogs that really want to protect their yard,” Hamilton said, adding with a laugh, “It doesn’t always work now. Sometimes we run into some junkyard lions, elephants.”
“Coach Ham,” as he’s known to his players, has fostered an unselfish spirit among his players despite initial skepticism.
“Everybody at first was like, ‘Uh, I don’t know about this,’” Cofer said, “but when we started winning games it kind of changes everything.”
And when they’re trailing and the outcome is in doubt, Hamilton is in his players’ ears with positivity.
“He’s always encouraging us,” Cofer said. “We even get down on ourselves and he just keeps telling us to keep pushing through. It gives us confidence. It feels like a second father.”
Hamilton credits his upbringing in the church for his nurturing manner. Growing up in the South, he would attend a different church every Sunday with his grandmother. Living close enough to hear the church organ in his bedroom, he developed a passion for gospel music and owns a record label.
“It’s kind of my way of giving back,” he said.
Hamilton, who at 69 could pass for someone much younger, is known to dance and joke with his players. He doesn’t drink or smoke, although he admits to cursing “every once in a while.”
In his three years at Florida State, Mann has seen a number of former players who come back and visit Hamilton, and also reach out to the current team.
That sense of community, more than his 1978 national championship ring as a Kentucky assistant or his other coaching honors, is what Hamilton enjoys.
“I’m more excited about when they graduate and get their degrees, when I get a chance to go to their weddings and be the godfather to their kids,” the coach said.
With Michigan and its 12-game winning streak looming, Hamilton is eager to see his players create more memories they can cherish the rest of their lives.
“I hope that my reward would be to see the smiles on their face and hear their tone of voice and the excitement in it if we can win this game tomorrow,” he said. “This is a bunch of guys that are connected together. They cheer for one another.”
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