Leonard Hamilton and MJ Walker met with the media after Florida State fell to Michigan in the Sweet 16.
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LEONARD HAMILTON: Here’s congratulations to the University of Michigan and Coach Juwan Howard. I thought they did an excellent job in their preparation and their execution. Many times, when you watch teams on film, you feel like you have a pretty good idea of their strengths and their weaknesses. Many times this year, people have looked at us in a similar fashion. Once they got on the court, our system sometimes is not quite what people think it is, and this is the case here.
This team executed so well. Their spacing was unbelievable. They were extremely patient. We had a hard time turning them over. They really, really played off of their big guy. We spent so much time trying to defend Hunter, and they get to their perimeter shooters, when the clock would run down to with about ten seconds left on the shot clock, they continue to keep staying in their system, and they executed and made plays right toward the end. That’s what a good team will do.
There’s no doubt that this team, from an execution standpoint, from a decision-making standpoint, they are playing to who they are. I said prior to the game that the team who would win this game would be the team who was the best version of who they were, and I think they were the best version of Michigan tonight. Even though I thought we could have played a little better, I’m not real sure that Michigan didn’t have a lot to do with our inability to play as well as we have played sometime during the course of the year.
Hat’s off to Smith. He’s hard to rattle. I thought that the two things we thought would be the biggest challenge for us would be to — because we switched one through five, is to keep the ball away from Hunter, and we worked our (indiscernible) off, but we never really seemed to — we worked so hard in trying to defend him and Smith, I thought it opened up opportunities for other guys to get the (indiscernible) cuts.
Hat’s off to this excellent team. If they play the way they played tonight, they’re going to be hard to beat.
Q. Coach, it seemed like you defended at least well enough to give you a chance in the second half, and they seemed unstoppable in the first half. In the second half, they were pretty unstoppable. Was that an adjustment they made? Was that a lack of execution from the defense?
LEONARD HAMILTON: First half, we both shot — we were 11 for 13 — 33 from the floor, and they were 10 for — both shot 33.3 percent from the floor. I think our Achilles was that we were 0 for 7 from the three, which is we had a couple games where we have shot the ball poorly, and we turned the ball over, I think, ten times in the first half. They scored the 16 points off our turnovers.
So I thought that they defended us and we defended them. We couldn’t get to the free-throw line, and they got to the free-throw line because we were overly aggressive. The second half, I thought that they did a much better job executing and got some high percentage shots, and I thought that the second half, we didn’t get — we shot 46 percent the second half, which was not horrible, but obviously their execution gave them a lot higher percentage shots than we did, plus we shot — for the game, I think we shot six free throws, and they shot 23. They were much more aggressive in terms of executing, getting the offensive rebounds and the put-backs and driving to the basket and spacing the floor.
I thought we followed them a little too much, and we didn’t get the same type of aggressiveness on our offensive end. And there lies the loss to a very good basketball team.
Q. Obviously, you made the run to the Sweet 16. What did you say to your team afterwards about finishing this very trying season and really a trying two-year stretch when you look at what happened at the end of last year and now this season with all the COVID?
LEONARD HAMILTON: I told them that I knew how bad they felt after going out and losing to a very good team that played as well as Michigan did, but they can’t let that one game define their season. We’re one game short from winning the regular season. We’re one game short from winning the conference tournament. And we came up short, and we made it through the Sweet 16, and we got beat by a team that played better than us.
In reality, we have — you feel bad now because you didn’t perform well enough against a real good basketball team, but we have a lot to be proud of. We’ve made tremendous progress with our program, and what we have to do is evaluate where we are, evaluate our shortcomings, and let’s go back now as a group, and let’s improve on these — on our shortcomings. Say, can we come back and be a little bit better than the Sweet 16 next year.
Q. Obviously, Raiquan Gray picked up the two early fouls in that game in the first half. Was there any thoughts of putting him in, even for just a couple minutes, towards the end of the first half? Because the offense seemed pretty much out of sorts without him.
LEONARD HAMILTON: Well, we normally have been okay. We were down, what, 10, 11 at halftime. That wasn’t something that we were really — we’ve come back from being down like that, but putting him back in for two minutes to get a third foul, I’m not really sure that would have been the wise thing in relation to this particular team.
There are certain guys that we need on the floor and certain guys that really make the difference in how well we play. Raiquan has developed to be one of those guys that seem to settle us down when we need it. He’s a very integral part of who we are, but I’m not real sure him not playing a couple minutes more in the first half would have made the difference in the game.
Q. Leonard, you talked about maybe your aggressiveness versus theirs. It did seem like M.J. attacked the rim quite a bit. It wasn’t like you were settling for jump shots. I guess, not to get you in trouble commenting on the officiating, but what did they do offensively to not get called for fouls that you guys did get called for fouls?
LEONARD HAMILTON: Well, it’s very unusual that a game of this magnitude and both teams being as aggressive as they were, but sometimes that’s just the way the cookie crumbles. We went to the foul line six times, and you’ve got to give them credit, though, I thought their execution was really, really good.
If I did underestimate one thing, they were really big, strong, wide-body guys who really did a very good job of playing to themselves and within themselves, and they executed a lot better than we did, and they put themselves in positions where they could get fouled.
Obviously, I’m concerned about it, but not to the point where it’s anything other than sometimes that’s just the way the game goes. I thought they were aggressive, and I thought we were too. In the first half, the thing that I was most concerned about, I think we had about five point-blank layups that we just didn’t finish. We got the shots that we wanted, but we just didn’t — even on the three-point shots we got in the first half, I thought they were pretty good shots.
It’s one of those nights where we just couldn’t seem to finish our attempts at the basket, but you’ve got to give them credit for being big and strong and contesting shots in there. I don’t want to take away from their defensive schemes that I thought caused us a little indecision and to be somewhat apprehensive and somewhat tentative when we went to the basket. You guys that have seen us play all year, normally we finish pretty well around the basket. We’ve been one of the better field goal shooting teams in our league and around the country.
Q. Leonard, I know you said that you’ve told the players not to let this one game define your season. I’m curious how you will look back on this season. Did this team get everything that it should out of its talents?
LEONARD HAMILTON: Sometimes I thought we might have overachieved at times. We have some strengths, and we have some weaknesses. I’ve been very proud of this team that they’ve hung together, and they’ve played within themselves. Every team goes through periods where they have issues. We have — I’m proud of these guys to go through the entire season without having anyone have a COVID issue. And even though we had two long pauses, to be able to bounce back without a whole lot of practices and be able to come back and be somewhat efficient, most teams always have a few of those nagging injuries. It seemed like they all came in bunches where we had maybe a two-, three-week period, where guys only played in games and didn’t really practice.
So I look back at this season, I think that team has a lot to be proud of. We’ll take this, and we’ll move forward. I think that we still got a lot more errors where we can improve in, and hopefully you’ll see that as we continue to move the program forward.
Q. I’m just wondering, the ACC is now out of the tournament. It’s the first time in a while there’s been no ACC teams in the final eight. I’m just wondering, from their perspective, what do you think was the difference in the conference this year that maybe it wasn’t — if you didn’t think it was quite as strong as in years past?
LEONARD HAMILTON: I think every conference goes through the period where you can’t stay on top forever. Our team is one of the most successful and rich traditioned conferences in the history of college basketball. We made it to the Sweet 16, and we have some other teams emerging that I think that, because of the rich tradition of some of our outstanding teams, they’re kind of pulling some of us up and kind of help accelerating our progress a little bit.
So I think what you’re going to see is more teams end up being at the highest level because of the success of the rich tradition of the programs that have been the marquee teams for our conference over a number of years. It works that way. It comes in rotations. I feel like maybe we had a year where this year maybe we’re not having someone in the Elite Eight, but I think most people, most rational, reasonable thinking people, they know this is not going to be the issue moving forward.
Q. Leonard, there’s kind of been this narrative in the sport that it’s going to be a Gonzaga-Baylor National Championship Game. Can Michigan beat those teams, what you saw today?
LEONARD HAMILTON: I will say this. If Michigan plays as well as they played today in terms of their focus and their execution and their spacing and the way they were connected today, I mean, they were almost flawless in their execution. I mean, I was extremely impressed with how ready they were to play. They maintained their composure. From start to finish, they never deviated.
They had that stretch there where I think we might have cut it to four or five there in the second half, but they continued to keep executing. There were about three or four possessions there where I thought we defended them by as well as they can be defended, and I thought we were having a good possession, and then they would have a guy — one of our players would turn their head, and they would make a dive cut and finish a basket there after we have spent a lot of energy defending them for part of the shot clock.
So that’s a team that really, really knows who they are. They know how to play to each other, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all for them to be standing there on Monday night with their finger up saying they’re number 1.
Q. Hey, M.J., just wanted to ask you, I know it’s immediate, but losing this game, career being over at FSU, what’s kind of the first thing that comes to your mind when you think back at your time at FSU, what you guys accomplished, and where this program stands as you’re exiting stage left?
M.J. WALKER: I feel like I contributed to a lot of great teams and a lot of great progress here at Florida State. The growth that I’ve seen since my freshman year all the way up till now has been tremendous, the way that our coaches and players have been locked in. Everyone’s spirit is just in the right place to continue to get better.
I’m just glad I can be a part of something special, the way that we did, and all the great players that I played with, all the coaching staff and the fans, everything was just a great experience being here at Florida State. It’s sad it had to be this way, but I felt like, even with all the adversity throughout this season, we still put ourselves in the best position possible to be successful.
It wasn’t the ending we wanted, but I feel like we just left it all out there and tried to do the best we can to make the Nole Nation proud.
Q. Kind of on those same lines, I assume you think this program is built for the long haul. Like you’re leaving, Scottie might be leaving, who knows who else? But do you think what you guys have done and what Leonard has built has built this program for the long haul where there will be plenty more Sweet 16s in the future and maybe Elite Eights and Final Fours?
M.J. WALKER: Definitely. Our coach is just in the right place. I think that’s what’s going to carry this program over into that Blue Blood era that’s coming soon. We’re doing everything the right way, and you do that for so long, good things are going to start to come. We’ve been putting ourselves in position every year, contending for a National Championship.
I think Coach Ham has definitely — Coach Ham and the staff, they’re doing a great job putting us in the right position to continue to build this culture the right way and taking this program to the next level. I think it’s only going to go up from here.
When I leave, I definitely will be looking back and just wishing the best. I just want to see the progression continue to build as I leave. You know, it’s kind of one of those things where I appreciate it, I’m sad, but at the same time, I’m just so thankful and appreciative of the success we’ve had, and we’re continuing to build through the next couple of years. You’ll definitely see — I feel like a National Championship is definitely on the way.
Q. M.J., congratulations on a great season. Just kind of piggy-backing off of some of those last ones, is there a certain memory that stands out to you at Florida State that really trumps everything else, whether on the court or off the court.
M.J. WALKER: There’s a lot of things I can say. It’s really just the experience, honestly. I wouldn’t trade it anywhere else, just the growth that I’ve had as a person on and off the floor has been — helped me in my life tremendously from the coaching staff and all the way to the players. I mean, I don’t want to say there’s a moment that sticks out the most, but every moment has definitely made me to who I am today and helped me going forward in life.
Q. I know you guys just talked about your four years there at Florida State. Are you considering maybe coming back for an extra year? I know everybody has that extra option now because of what happened with COVID.
M.J. WALKER: I’m definitely going to discuss that with my coaches, and we’ll definitely make that decision when we get back to Tallahassee.
Q. You guys went through three separate scoring droughts of four minutes in the first half. Did you get a feeling, as the first half was proceeding, that you guys were just out of sorts and you were just having a lot of difficulty trying to find any kind of groove at all?
M.J. WALKER: I mean, we’ve kind of been struggling shooting in March Madness for a majority of the part. We haven’t been shooting kind of how we have in the regular season. I think that Michigan did a good job with their game plan and executed defensively and offensively. The ball just wasn’t going our way today.
I think that we were still trying our best to execute our game plan. Sometimes the ball doesn’t go the way you want, and turnovers kind of didn’t help us as much. We weren’t rebounding the ball as well. So not a lot of positives overpowering the negatives, and I think that’s kind of what hurt us.
I mean, we’re a defensive type program, and we didn’t do a great job defensively as well, trying to get stops throughout the whole game and didn’t control the run. So that’s just something that we’ve got to learn from going forward, and it will definitely make us better.
Q. I was just wondering if you could talk a little bit about how different this year was, you know, with everything going on in the world and just the on and off stop and how different the tournament was. What kind of an experience was this, and how will you remember it?
M.J. WALKER: It’s definitely been the toughest year in my four years here at Florida State, just from the way it started. I mean, it wasn’t — it was nowhere near the typical year that I’ve had here at Florida State. We didn’t start training until pretty much the beginning of October, late September. The summer is usually a big, big part of our program and how we develop players.
We tried to do what we could, and I’m sure other teams across — pretty much every team across the country, whether it was men’s sports, women’s sports, it was tough. It was definitely one of those things you had to try to figure out and kind of just playing it by ear and continuing to adjust.
But it was tough. I feel like we didn’t — one thing I’m proud of is our team and program, we didn’t make any excuses for COVID and what life is throwing at us. We found a way to continue to press through and found a way to continue to figure out ways to get better, stay connected the best way we could.
It was tough. I mean, not having the gym for over three or four months, really kind of five, I mean, on top of limited time in the gym throughout the whole entire season and treatment. So it’s kind of one of those things you’ve got to continue to adjust and just take it for what it is and deal with it the best with what you’ve got. That’s all you can ask for.
I feel like we did that as a program, just tried to give it as much as we can, and we just rolled with the punches. So it was definitely one of the toughest years I’ve had here at Florida State mentally.
Q. M.J., you mentioned kind of the shooting struggles there at the end of the year. Is there anything you can put your finger on? You guys were so good offensively for so long, and it just seemed like the last, I don’t know, five or six games, including this one, you guys would have struggles offensively. Was it — I don’t know. Can you put your finger on what you think happened there?
M.J. WALKER: Honestly, I think it was a lot of our defense affected my offense. A lot of times when we’re in shooting slumps, we kind of take our focus a little bit off defensively, which creates some runs for the other team. We kind of let runs affect our offense — our defense affect our offense by either getting rushed shots or not getting the shots we necessarily want.
I can’t really put my finger on why we shot not as well as we have during the whole season. It’s kind of one of those things you’ve just got to — we try to depend on our defense, honestly, to carry us. You need both if you’re trying to win a National Championship, if you’re going to continue to get to that next level. Honestly, we didn’t do both today. Defensively, we weren’t that great. We didn’t take care of the ball as well as we need to, and on top of that, we weren’t shooting the ball well.
It’s just something we’ve got to learn from and just figure out ways to keep that consistency later in the season as a program, offensively and defensively. So I can’t really — it’s not something I can really put my finger on.