Memories (some, at least) greet Florida State's Hamilton in return to Middle Tennessee

Thursday, March 15, 2012 at 11:32pm

Tennessee-Martin and Austin Peay State gave Leonard Hamilton his first experiences outside of his hometown of Gastonia, N.C.

Hamilton looks back fondly on those moments nearly 40 years ago. They offered him a place to end his playing career, begin his coaching chapter and create friendships.

Some of those relationships, of course, faded over time. Or so he thought.

Friends he had forgotten about have resurfaced in recent days as Hamilton, now the head coach of Florida State, has brought his third-seeded Seminoles into Nashville for the opening round of the NCAA Tournament. FSU opens East Region play with No. 14 St. Bonaventure at 1:45 p.m. Friday — one of four games at Bridgestone Arena.

“The only negative is that I’ve had to buy 20 extra tickets. That is a little bit costly,” Hamilton joked on Thursday. “My phone is ringing off the hook. People I haven’t heard from since I graduated from college now all of a sudden they want to reacquaint themselves.”

Hamilton, 63, strolls back down memory lane equipped with a team many have as a popular sleeper pick for the Final Four.

Behind stingy defense, the Seminoles (24-9) are riding a five-game winning streak, which includes consecutive wins against perennial powers Duke and North Carolina en route to their first ACC Tournament championship last weekend.

Defense was the foundation on which the late Lake Kelly built his Austin Peay program during two stints with the Governors. The first began in 1971, when Hamilton was a graduate assistant fresh out of UT-Martin.

Hamilton spent three seasons at Austin Peay, elevating to assistant coach when the team’s only full-time assistant under Kelly became ill in January of 1972 and resigned.

“Even though I was in graduate school, I had basically all the responsibilities of a full-time coach when I was in graduate school,” Hamilton said. “So, now things that normally you don’t have to be involved with as a graduate student, I was put in a position to have to learn and grow up, kind of on-the-job training. At the time I didn’t realize how beneficial and that would be to me.”

In 1974 Hamilton moved on to the University of Kentucky, where he spent 14 years as an assistant and associate head coach before head coaching stints at Oklahoma State, Miami and with the Washington Wizards.

He has spent the last 10 years at Florida State and earned his third coach of the year honor — second in the ACC — this season.

“I was so fortunate for that to be my first coaching opportunity,” Hamilton said of Austin Peay. “I was just blessed it worked out that way, to be involved with [Kelly] who was so organized and he loved defense. As a child growing up I obviously enjoyed that part of the game. ... It was a tremendous opportunity for me, just being in the right place at the right time, to have an opportunity to work for a guy that I learned so much from technically as a basketball coach but just how to communicate with players and how to navigate through building programs.”

• Gates’ turnaround: With one punch, Yancy Gates put his destiny and his team’s future in jeopardy.

Luckily for the Cincinnati senior, he received a second chance and made the most of it. He served a six-game suspension for his part in an infamous end-of-the-game brawl against Xavier in December, Since then, the 6-foot-9, 260-pounder is averaging 12.5 points and 9.5 rebounds heading into No. 6 seed Cincinnati’s matchup with No. 11 Texas in the East Region at 11:15 a.m. on Friday.

“Really I just made the best of it by coming out here and playing, helping my team to get to where we are now,” Gates said. “We had a chance to win the Big East tournament [before losing in the finals to Louisville], which nobody expected to us do, and hopefully we'll do the unexpected and win games here, which nobody probably expects us to do. Just do what we’ve been doing and keep playing against the odds and trying to prove people wrong.”

• Duplicating an upset: Ohio busted brackets a couple years when it knocked off third-seed Georgetown in the opening round of the 2010 NCAA Tournament.

The Bobcats (27-7) hope to cause headaches for office pool maniacs again on Friday. Ohio, out of the Mid-American Conference, is seeded 13th in the Midwest Region and will try to upset its northern rival, No. 4 seed Michigan (24-9), at 6:20 p.m. on Friday.

“It gives us confidence,” guard D.J. Cooper said. “You know, we know that’s in the past. We just know that we got to be a better team [Friday] night and we have to come out and play hard and know that Georgetown, that doesn't even matter anymore.”

• Future familiar foes: Temple and South Florida are separated by more than 1,000 miles but Friday’s opening round matchup in the Midwest Region will be the first of many in the years to come.

Temple, currently in the Atlantic-10 Conference, is joining the Big East in 2012 for football and all other sports will follow suit in 2013. The fifth-seeded Owls (24-7) play the 12th-seeded Bulls (21-13) at 8:50 p.m. on Friday.

“It's been football driven,” Temple coach Fran Dunphy said. “Obviously we would like to have all of your sports under one roof and we're going to do that in another year. It's what has happened to college athletics. My opinion is, is it going to be good? I don't know that. I don't have that crystal ball, but I hope it's good for Temple University, and the Big East certainly has a terrific brand.”

Second-round games

(at Bridgestone Arena)

No. 6 Cincinnati vs. No. 11 Texas, 11:15 a.m., CBS
No. 3 Florida State vs. No. 14 St. Bonaventure, CBS

No. 4 Michigan vs. No. 13 Ohio, 6:20 p.m., TNT
No. 5 Temple vs. No. 12 South Florida, 8:50 p.m., TNT

(Note: Times not yet determined for Sunday games)