TALLAHASSEE, FLA. — TALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Pat Kennedy knew that this season would be a difficult one for his Florida State basketball team, a ride back to reality for the Seminoles after their fantasy first year in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Little did he know how hard the landing would be.
"It's been a roller-coaster season for us," said Kennedy.
Going into tonight's game against Maryland (8-3, 0-2) at the Tallahassee-Leon County Civic Center, Florida State (9-5, 1-1) has seen its national ranking drop from No. 7 in late November to out of the Top 25 this week. Injuries, inconsistency and incompatibility have all played their part.
"Last year was kind of a magical year for us -- beating North Carolina twice, finishing second in the conference, winning all those close games on the road, going to the Sweet 16," said Kennedy, in his seventh year at the school. "I don't know how many times Florida State will go to the Sweet 16. But the one thing we didn't plan on was injuries."
Start with senior guard Chuckie Graham blowing out a knee in the 1992-93 opener against Siena. Then came an assortment of nagging injuries to senior forward Douglas Edwards, which prevented him from practicing for most of the first month. And, finally, 7-foot center Andre Reid broke a hand last month.
"We became college basketball's 'M*A*S*H' unit," joked Kennedy.
But the Seminoles didn't just need to consult an orthopedist, they needed a psychologist as well. Some accused Edwards of being a hypochondriac. Starting guards Sam Cassell and Bobby Sura were staging a not-so-private family feud, upset about the other's shot selection.
"Those three kids did not jell well together," said Kennedy, who was aware of the potential for problems after Sura's outstanding preseason carried into the team's first two games. "The pressure mounted. We addressed it after we lost those two games in New York, and they have done a great job of working it out."
Said Cassell, a senior from Baltimore, "It's been very tough. Guys weren't comfortable through the whole [ACC] preseason. We didn't have Charlie [Ward]. We lost Chuck and Andre. It was a hard adjustment. Bobby was playing very well for us, but this team needs me to score points. I had to be a set-up man and that's not going to win us many games."
In retrospect, the biggest problem was the absence of point guard Ward. The starting quarterback on Florida State's No. 2-ranked football team and the ACC's 1992 Player of the Year, Ward didn't return to the basketball court until after the Orange Bowl win over Nebraska. By the time he came back last week, the Seminoles were a mess.
Not only had Florida State suffered back-to-back losses to nationally ranked Indiana and UCLA in the semifinals and consolation game of the preseason NIT, but it also had lost at Duquesne and at home to Florida. In Ward's first game back, the Seminoles dropped their ACC opener at Virginia. There weren't enough basketballs to keep Cassell, Sura and Edwards happy.
"Getting Charlie back was a key for us," said Kennedy, whose team finished 22-10 last year, 11-5 in the ACC.
Evidence of that came in Saturday's 74-72 win at Wake Forest. After losing a number of close games down the stretch, the Seminoles came from behind to beat the Demon Deacons. Ward made one turnover in 43 minutes and Cassell, who had scored a season-low 10 points after three straight games of 30 or more, hit a game-winning three-point play with one second left.
Kennedy hopes the victory in Winston-Salem, N.C., and Cassell's last-second heroics will revitalize the Seminoles. It was reminiscent of last year, when Florida State won several close games on the road -- including in overtime at Maryland -- and Cassell hit a number of game-winning shots, including one at Wake Forest.
0 "It just renewed a lot of confidence for us," said Kennedy. "There's a lot of joy and happiness with our winning over Wake Forest. But there's also a feeling of relief. It's like, whew, I'm glad we didn't start off 0-2 in the league."
Said Cassell, "Guys are better understanding their roles, what to do in their roles."
Not that the Seminoles have all their swagger back from last season. And just because Maryland lost its first two league games, including a 28-point defeat at North Carolina Saturday, doesn't mean Florida State will take tonight's game lightly.
"Maryland came in here last year and beat us solidly," said Cassell. "We have a chip on our shoulder for that. Maryland hasn't won in the league yet and we've lost once, too. It's a must-win situation for both teams."