TALLAHASSEE, Fla. – Defending Atlantic Coast Conference champions. It's got a ring to it that Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton hopes to hear often.
Although the Seminoles lost a half dozen veteran players from the school's first ACC titlists, Hamilton believes this year's club is potentially better than the one that finished 25-10 last season before being eliminated by Cincinnati in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Only a few folks voted the Seminoles to repeat this season with North Carolina State the preseason favorite to prevail. The Seminoles were picked fourth by the media and fifth by ACC coaches in preseason surveys.
"We're going to surprise a lot of people," Hamilton said. "We like this team."
Lofty goals indeed for a club that defeated Duke and North Carolina twice, including a 33-point blowout of the Tar Heels last January.
Depth again always the key to any Hamilton-coached team and he believes he has it, albeit much of it youthful.
"The strength of our teams has always been the quality of our depth and I think that's going to be something that's going to be consistent," Hamilton said. "We lost four starters, but we return our four leading scorers."
Michael Snaer is back for his final season and likely to be joined in the starting lineup by juniors Okaro White, Terrance Shannon, Ian Miller and Kiel Turpin, one of three 7-foot newcomers in Hamilton's arsenal.
While the Seminoles will miss the inside defensive heroics of Bernard James, they will feature a more up-tempo offense. However, Hamilton has no intention of abandoning his traditional shut-down defense that has annually ranks among the best nationally in holding opponents to poor field goal shooting percentage.
The 6-3 Snaer was money last year, hitting buzzer-beating, game-winning shots at Duke and against Virginia Tech while Miller did likewise at Virginia.
A 40 percent shooter from 3-point distance and one of the ACC's top defenders, Snaer will also be counted on heavily by Hamilton for leadership this season.
"We need his maturity and leadership and understanding of how we have to play to be successful," Hamilton said. "His leadership is invaluable to use."
Snaer, who averaged 14 points a game as a junior, heads into his final year with 1,071 career points and is within range of becoming the seventh player in school history to reach 1,600 points.
The athletic White, who won both the dunk and 3-point shooting contests in the team's fan night, averaged 7.7 points 4.4 rebounds, but was particularly productive in Florida State's toughest games. He had a double double with 12 points and 10 rebounds in the romp over North Carolina.
"He's always played big in big games," Hamilton said. "He hits his free throws, is a good shot blocker and he's added a much more consistent jump shot."
Shannon, a tenacious inside force and rebounder, averaged 8.3 points a game before he suffered a season-ending shoulder injury, and guard Ian Miller, who finished the season averaging 10.3 points a game after regaining his eligibility in late December is with the team this year from the start.
And this year, instead of being loaded up with seniors, the depth will be coming from a handful of freshmen and sophomore Terry Whisnant, a long-range shooter who is also expected to help defensively while spelling Snaer or Miller.
Hamilton is excited about the newcomers that include 6-4 shooting guard Aaron Thomas from Cincinnati, 6-7 wing Montay Brandon from High Point, N.C., 6-9 junior college transfer Robert Gilchrist from England and the 2011 Alaska Prep Player of the Year, 6-2 Devon Booker, who spent this past season polishing his skills at a prep school in Las Vegas where he averaged 25 points and 8.5 assists a game.
And then two new 19-year-old, 7-footers in 7-3 Boris Bojanovsky from the Slovak Republic and 7-1, 290-pound Michael Ojo from Nigeria.
"We have a lot of talent in the locker room, guys are gym rats and willing to learn," Shannon said about the newcomers.
The Seminoles play an 18-game ACC schedule that features visits from North Carolina, Duke and preseason favorite North Carolina State along with a nonconference slate highlighted by archrival Florida and Minnesota in the annual ACC/Big Ten challenge.
Hamilton wants to get off to a better start than last season when the Seminoles stood 9-6 in early January before a 16-4 finish.
"We did get off to kind of a rocky start last year, but now our goal is to try to be a lot more ready earlier to go and play up to our ability," Hamilton said. "It is going to be somewhat of a challenge when you're trying to integrate as many first year players into our system."
But the veteran coach doesn't seem too worried as he eyes a fifth straight 20-win season and even possibly a repeat as ACC champion. The Seminoles are 95-41 the last four seasons and 43-21 in the ACC.
Hamilton doesn't expect any drop off.
"I'm not sure we like being the underdog," Hamilton said. "We have kids we like very much."