July 9, 2003
The final seconds of Florida State’s quarterfinal round loss in the ACC Tournament to Wake Forest in March were much more of a beginning than an end for Seminole point guard Nate Johnson.
Johnson and his teammates had pushed ACC Player of the Year Josh Howard and the Demon Deacons to the limit. The Seminoles led the regular season ACC Champions for virtually all of the first 30 minutes of the game before Wake Forest outscored Florida State, 19-11, over the final eight minutes to take the Seminoles’ spot in the semifinal round of the tournament. The Seminoles had fought valiantly in losing 69-61 and were terribly disappointed in the locker room following the game.
Despite the loss, the Seminoles left the Greensboro Coliseum that day having made believers among many of the 23,745 basketball fans in the arena. They had served notice that Florida State, under head coach Leonard Hamilton, was about to become a major player in the ACC race.
That the season had come to a disappointing end for Johnson and his teammates was undeniable. That the team had not qualified for the postseason was obvious. That the game uniforms had to be handed in when the players arrived back in Tallahassee was clear.
What was also apparent was that the Seminoles were just getting started on the road to returning Florida State to the upper echelon of the college basketball world.
“Losing that game was tough because it meant an end to our season,” said Johnson. “But the end to one season brings the beginning of the next season and that’s how we had looked at it. We improved and progressed as a team throughout the season and we were all hungry to continue that improvement. If we wanted to get better, we had to start thinking about next season at the end of the Wake Forest game.”
Johnson enjoyed an outstanding season in his first year at the Division I level. Handed the ball and asked to run the team from the first day of practice, the junior ranked 11th in the ACC with an average of 2.9 assists per game. Even better than his assists total was his turnover ratio. In 894 minutes played Johnson committed only 48 turnovers during the entire season for an average of only one miscue every 19 minutes. During the season he had six streaks of at least 36 minutes without a turnover including an incredible 113-minute stretch over four games when he did not turn the ball over to the opposition. In the Seminoles’ season-ending loss to Wake Forest he committed zero turnovers in 38 minutes played against one of the top 10 defensive teams in the nation.
Aside from the high assist and low turnover totals, Johnson was an invaluable player in many other statistical categories for the Seminoles. He averaged 4.8 points per game and scored his career-high of 18 to help Florida State past Clemson in the first round of the ACC Tournament. He was one of only two Seminoles who started all 29 games and averaged over 30 minutes of playing time. Johnson also finished second on the team with 30 3-point shots made and averaged nearly one steal per game.
Still, he was not satisfied with his overall play during the season.
“Looking back on the season, I need to learn to be more aggressive,” said Johnson. “I need to make more things happen for my team — I need to be more of a catalyst. Before the Clemson game in the ACC Tournament the coaching staff hounded me on the fact that I need to shoot more and be more aggressive. The coaches told me the first two times we played Clemson they didn’t guard me. When the ball came to me they backed off and helped in the paint.
Johnson scored 18 points as he made five-of-six shots from the field including four-of-five from the 3-point arc against the Tigers as Florida State won its opening round game in the ACC Tournament for the third time in the last four years. All of those statistics rank as career-highs for the Kansas City, Mo., native.
“It helps to study tapes to see how people are playing you so the next time you come out you know what you can and cannot do against them,” said Johnson who has made studying last year’s game film in the Seminoles’ state-of-the-art video office part of his daily routine this summer.
Spending the summer in Tallahassee is a long way from where Johnson thought he would be between his junior and senior years in college. He had just about decided on signing with Creighton before Hamilton called and asked him to save a weekend in his schedule to visit Florida State during the spring of 2002. Hamilton had recently been named the Seminoles’ head coach and he was scouring the world for the best available talent.
It just so happened that Johnson, fresh from leading Moberly Area Community College to the National Junior College Tournament in Hutchinson, Kan., was one of the top players available. It also helped that Johnson’s junior college coach, Pat Smith, had been an assistant under Hamilton in Miami.
“Coach Hamilton got on me kind of late because he didn’t take the job at Florida State until after my junior college season had ended,” said Johnson. “After talking to my junior college coach we decided I should come to Tallahassee and give Florida State a look. I came down here on my visit and everything clicked.
Fortunately for Seminole fans, Johnson enjoyed his visit and decided to sign with Florida State. From the warm weather, to the impressive Florida State campus, to the students and faculty to the atmosphere around the football games, he decided Tallahassee was the place for him to grow both academically and athletically.
“The main thing that swung me to Florida State was that Coach Hamilton and his staff were laying the foundation for a new program and that a new era was beginning here,” said Johnson. “You could tell basketball at Florida State was about to change.”
Change is exactly what Johnson experienced when he arrived at Florida State in August of 2002.
From the size of the campus (his junior college had 8,000 students as compared to over 35,000 at Florida State), to the weather (he didn’t see snow and didn’t miss it during his first year in Florida) to playing on national television (the Seminoles appeared on ESPN and Fox Sports six times during his junior season) to traveling on charter airplanes (travel in junior college comes mostly in buses or vans) to playing in arenas he had only watched on television, Johnson experienced events and situations he had only dreamed about.
He also experienced a non-stop Division I schedule for the first time in his career. Though he played in 27 games at Moberly as a sophomore, nothing prepared him for the grind of the Seminoles’ 2002-03 schedule. Including exhibition games Florida State played 31 games from November through the middle of March, an average of two to three games a week. The difference is teams on the Division I level play throughout the month of December to prepare for the beginning of their conference schedule while the junior colleges don’t normally schedule during the December holiday period.
“My biggest challenge during the season was being mentally tough and learning to approach every game and every practice as being as important as the next one,” said Johnson. I learned that I have to bring my game every night. There are no easy games at this level. That was a big challenge for me because in junior college you are going to have five or six games when you are going to blow a team out. I also learned that I have to approach my academics the same way. You can’t miss a class and you have to go into every test as mentally prepared as you do into every game.”
As Johnson, the middle of five children, adjusted to his new environment, he became more and more prepared to meet the challenges that now come his way each day.
Practices, though no less demanding, became less of a battle between his mind and body because of his vigorous work in the weight room. Games, though no less intense, became more exciting because of his hard work in practice and the video room. Success in the class room, though no easier, became routine because of the outstanding study habits he had developed.
On the court, Johnson played his best basketball when he became fully adjusted to his new surroundings. Over the course of the final 11 games of the season he averaged 5.5 points per game (as compared to 4.3 in the first 18 games), had an assist to turnover ratio of nearly 3:1 (as compared to 1.5:1 in the first 18 games) and led the Seminoles to victories over No. 5 Duke and NIT participants Georgia Tech and Virginia.
“One of my most favorite moments from my first season was when we beat Duke in the Civic Center,” said Johnson. “The game was a fun game to play, it was intense and we came together as a team. It also was great to play in front of so many excited Seminole fans. It was great for us as a team to play a full 40-minute basketball game.”
“I had a lot of fun last season,” said Johnson. “I am always going to remember how we started and how we finished this season. It was a good feeling to see how much we progressed. It showed how far we came as a team from the beginning to the end.”
For Nate Johnson and the Florida State men’s basketball team, there are no beginnings and no ends. There is only the never-ending effort to improve both individually and collectively.
By Chuck Walsh
Sports Information Office