TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Florida State guard Luke Loucks still cringes at the memory of the meltdown. The Seminoles, a preseason darling, had lost for the third time in four games, but "loss" doesn't accurately describe what Clemson did to Florida State on Jan. 7. The Seminoles got mauled, and they didn't fight back.
"Clemson could do whatever they wanted," Loucks said of the 79-59 loss. "We were like a middle school girls team just trying to throw shots at the rim."
So how did that same team turn around and win its next five? How did that same team crush North Carolina by 33 in Tallahassee and then, a week later, use two Michael Snaer buzzer-beaters to snap Duke's 45-game winning streak at Cameron Indoor Stadium?
Because before FSU left Clemson's Littlejohn Coliseum, senior forward Bernard James spoke up and ignited a discussion players and coaches needed to have if they hoped to move forward.
The mood in the visitors' locker room at Littlejohn was foul. In the previous two weeks, the Seminoles had been creamed at Florida and had lost in triple overtime at home to Princeton after scoring only 10 points in the first half. But this was different. FSU has had its offensive issues, but the one constant was a ferocious defensive intensity that allowed the Seminoles to remain competitive even when their shots didn't fall. Against Clemson, that tenacity disappeared. On the floor, the team seemed rudderless. "As a coach, you can't pick leaders," FSU coach Leonard Hamilton said. "Leaders have to emerge." One of Hamilton's players was about to do just that.
As coaches autopsied the performance, they noted the players' lackadaisical effort. As he sat in front of his locker, something snapped inside the usually laid-back James. "Speak for yourself," James recalled saying, though he admits to more colorful language. "I played hard that game."
Instead of clamping down on James, Hamilton let him speak. For the next hour, every Seminole with something on his mind had his say. "It wasn't a yelling, disrespectful tone," Hamilton said. "It was allowing them to express themselves and to just release some of the stress they were under." The Seminoles realized that what appeared to be selfish play by their teammates wasn't selfish at all. FSU's early struggles had caused several players to try to do too much, and their overreaching had hurt the team.
"It was like a boiling point for our team," Loucks said. "Either we go this way and try to get this together, or our whole season is going to be doomed."
The fact that it was James who spoke up carried significant weight. Not much bothers James, and with good reason. Though his tale was well chronicled last year as the Seminoles marched to the NCAA tournament, it's important to note in this case how James' life experience taught him to lead when necessary.
A high school dropout from Savannah, Ga., James got his GED and enlisted in the Air Force at 17. During six years in the service, James served three tours of duty in the Middle East. He also grew five inches, morphing from the 6-foot-5 beanpole who once got cut from his high school team into a 6-10, 240-pounder with NBA measurables but little hoops experience. While James has only recently learned the language and rhythms of organized basketball, he learned much earlier how groups forge bonds and discover their leaders under the kind of duress his teammates can't even imagine.
"Until you've really been through stuff with people," James said, "you tend not to tell them what's on your mind." What kind of stuff? "There were a couple times in Iraq," James said. "We would have a riot or a mortar attack. It would just kind of be chaos, and nobody was taking control. That would be a time to step up and just calm everybody down and get everybody back doing their job."
While nothing James will experience as a basketball player can compare to that, he can use that experience to inform him when to rise up and lead. The moment came in the locker room at Clemson. The Seminoles didn't need to make major schematic adjustments. They didn't need to shake up the lineup. They merely needed to understand one another.
"We went," James said, "from a group of friends to a family almost overnight."
The change manifested itself almost immediately. Since the meltdown at Clemson, FSU has averaged 77.6 points a game -- seven more than the Seminoles' pre-streak average -- without sacrificing the relentless defense that is the trademark of Hamilton's teams. The breakout performance came in Tallahassee with ESPN's GameDay crew on the scene. With Rece Davis and Digger Phelps kibitzing on the court at the Donald Tucker Center, senior guard Deividas Dulkys slipped into FSU's practice gym next door. Dulkys only began counting consecutive makes at practice this season, so he isn't sure where the 28 consecutive three-pointers he made that morning ranks on his all-time list. He does know it's the high for this season, and that anonymous hot streak portended an extremely public one. Against the Tar Heels, Dulkys repeatedly shed his defender in a maze of screens and popped open beyond the arc. He torched North Carolina for 33 points on 12-of-14 shooting -- including 8-of-10 from three-point range.
Dulkys, one of the Seminoles guilty of putting too much pressure on himself early in the season, felt himself tighten up before FSU played Maryland the following Wednesday. He rushed an early three-point attempt, but what he did next is emblematic of the Seminoles' new understanding of their roles. He recognized that the Terrapins intended to smother him, so instead of forcing too many shots -- he only took five -- Dulkys moved the ball and made sure the defender checking him couldn't help stop anyone else. Before Clemson, Dulkys might not have responded that way. "We thought we could be the team we are right now," he said, "but we didn't really believe it."
Now they do. As FSU prepared to take the court at Duke on Jan. 21, Loucks remembers thinking the Seminoles were the only people in the building -- and probably the only people in the nation -- who thought they could walk out victorious. On the game's final play, Loucks pushed the ball the length of the floor and found Snaer in the corner for the shot that left the Cameron Crazies staring at one another in stunned silence. Florida State players go out of their way to pay Duke and North Carolina the proper respect, but they can't abide the notion that everyone else in the ACC is playing for third place. "If you're trying to finish third," Loucks said, "you shouldn't be playing."
Taking tiebreakers into account, FSU sits in first in the ACC at the moment. The Seminoles believe that if they keep playing this way, they can stay there. That belief took time to cultivate, because so many Seminoles had to adjust to new roles this season. James and Loucks moved from role players to focal points. Xavier Gibson moved from center to power forward. Okaro White moved from power forward to small forward. Forward Terrance Shannon went down in FSU's seventh game. Ian Miller, an instant energy scorer off the bench, couldn't play until December because of an academic suspension.
Hamilton's favorite biblical passage comes from the Book of James: But let patience have her perfect work, that ye may be perfect and entire, wanting nothing. The coach has thought of that passage often this season. From the outside, so much patience didn't seem necessary. After all, Hamilton plays six seniors in a 10-man rotation. But while the Seminoles appeared to be a group of grizzled veterans, most had little or no experience in the roles they were expected to play. "A lot of people look at our roster and see how old our team is," Loucks said. "Quite honestly, we didn't have the experience in the roles we're in right now."
With experience came an acceptance of those roles. But the embrace of those roles didn't come until college basketball's most grizzled actual veteran spoke up and started a long-overdue conversation.
"We were just able to all get on one page," James said. "From the walk-ons up to the head coach."