'Big Guard U' brand for Seminoles gives a name to Leonard Hamilton's reliance on size, length

Curt Weiler
Tallahassee Democrat

In many ways, the system that Florida State men's basketball coach Leonard Hamilton has developed mirrors the way he used to play the game himself in his younger days.

He values depth, not trying to rely on any one player too much and unselfish play highly on his roster.

"A lot of guys, especially coaches who have played, there's something about the way they like to play as a result of the experiences that they had over a period of time," Hamilton said this week from the NCAA Tournament bubble.

"I was always a good defender and a very unselfish player. Even though I scored quite a bit of points, I always enjoyed creating for other people even in pickup games. How many points I scored wasn't as much of an issue as was us trying to find a way to win."

Perhaps what Hamilton values most in players he recruits, however, is size and length.

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Hamilton's look at length began at Miami

Early in his time atop the Miami basketball program in the 1990s, Hamilton and his coaching staff, including current FSU assistant Stan Jones, identified a way they could make up for the Hurricanes' relative lack of pure talent compared to the rest of the Big East.

"We kind of started realizing, in the Big East because of the physicality of play, the players we had to get," Jones told the Democrat.

"Having long, interchangeable pieces on the perimeter spots was different than a lot of the northeastern schools that had the slick ball-handling smaller guards. That was a way that we could negate them and make ourselves more competitive."

This realization and the subsequent shifting of the roster paid dividends for Hamilton. This commitment to size took Miami from a 9-19 record in his first season to a 23-11 record, a share of the Big East regular-season championship and a Sweet 16 appearance in his final year with the Hurricanes in 1999-2000.

"We had a lineup our last three years at the University of Miami with a 6-foot-5 point guard, a 6-foot-6 two-guard and a 6-foot-7 (small forward)," Jones said.

"One of them ended up leading the Big East in assists, one of them was the most improved player and first-team all-conference and then John Salmons ended up being a 13-year NBA pro and a first-round draft pick."

FSU sees early success in Nate Johnson and Al Thornton

Hamilton landed back in the college ranks at FSU in 2002 after a short stint in the NBA with the Washington Wizards. He quickly identified the same need for size within the Seminoles' program and signed 6-foot-4 guards Nate Johnson and Tim Pickett in his first class at FSU.

Al Thornton followed closely after, continuing to lay the blueprint for Hamilton's ideal program.

"As a young coach growing up, I learned from guys, especially the late Lake Kelly, taking away vision was important, contesting shots was important, using your length to contest passes as much as you contest shots..." Hamilton said.

"My philosophy of long arms, athleticism, quickness and speed, that means a lot that as it relates to our philosophy, offensively and defensively."

On the other side:Five things to know about UNC Greensboro senior guard Isaiah Miller

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While this has been Hamilton's modus operandi for nearly three decades at this point, it wasn't given a name until 2019 when the "Big Guard U" brand started to develop.

"It started with Trent Forrest and me," former FSU point guard David Nichols told the Democrat.

Guard David Nichols gestures at cheering Florida State fans after the Seminoles' victory in the ACC Tournament semifinal in 2019.

"Any time we got a steal in practice or anything, we were just like joke and say, 'DBU,' like how the football guys say Florida State is DBU. So anytime we get a steal in practice, we were like, 'DBU, DBU.' Then, we just changed it to Big Guard U.

"Any time somebody made a strong move to the basket or somebody posted up somebody else, we'd say, 'BGU.'...By the end of the year, (FSU assistant coach Charlton Young) had rankings of all 18 players and he called it the Big Body Benz list. You wanted to be number one on the Big Body Benz list. It's just a combination of a bunch of different things that just culminated into Big Guard University."

The modern 'Big Guard U' : Scottie Barnes, M.J. Walker and RaiQuan Gray

For FSU, BGU is a testament to what the program is built around as a team that is consistently one of the tallest and longest teams in the country, packed to the gills with freakish athletes and wingspans.

But beyond the physical presence of it, it's a mentality within the program.

"It's something that we pride ourselves on, being the most physical team, trying to throw the first punch," FSU senior guard M.J. Walker said.

"I just feel like Big Guard U, when you come here, it's being the most physical guard, having the stronger mentality over your opponent."

While bigger guards have been a trademark of FSU basketball throughout Hamilton's 19-year tenure, this year's team has two of the less traditional guards in program history.

True freshman Scottie Barnes, who is 6-foot-9, handles a great deal of the ball-handling when he is on the court despite not playing point guard in high school.

Redshirt junior RaiQuan Gray measures 6-foot-8 and 260 pounds. His big frame makes him capable of playing inside as a post presence. But he also has the ability to come out and serve as a primary ball-handler, something he has done at times throughout this season for the Seminoles.

"They're talented. They have talents that a lot of people aren't blessed with and they're using them to the best of their abilities. They're a mismatch for a lot of people, especially in college, and will be at the next level as well," Walker said of Barnes and Gray.

"I think the stuff they bring, the instincts they have and the talent they have, while playing hard, is a hard matchup for a lot of people in the country."

The move towards position-less basketball and more flexibility about the types of players that can serve as primary ball-handlers has been happening in the NBA for years.

Hamilton is in his fifth decade as a head coach, dating back to 1986 at Oklahoma State. But his willingness to continue to adapt and change by using such non-traditional guards could be a part of why the Seminoles have had such strong recent success.

"J. Leonard Hamilton deserves a lot of credit for just evolving with the game, understanding that evolution is one of the most important words in civilization," Young said.

"Cars get better, shoes get better, TVs get better and you've got to be getting better."

Nichols, who is now playing professionally in Slovenia for KK Rogaska, parlayed the BGU brand he helped launch at FSU into an apparel brand.

His website, ProScorersClub.com, sells FSU-adjacent shirts and hoodies sporting phrases such as "Big Guard University" and "Nole Basketball Association."

The BGU trend has grown so much in recruiting circles that FSU coaches now get calls from high school and AAU coaches who tell them they saw a Florida State type of player, a big guard or wing, at an event.

It has grown so much within the program that it's now policed within the team.

"When somebody makes a play and doesn't deliver the first blow when they've got the ball in their hand, it's to the point where the coaches don't ever say anything," Young said.

"The kids will (say), 'Go through him! Mush him! Wipe him! Big body Benz!' The kids will hold each other accountable to the brand. It's really a beautiful thing to watch it grow over the last five to six years."

No. 4 seed Florida State vs. No. 13 seed UNC Greensboro

When: Saturday, 12:45 p.m.

Where: Bankers Life Fieldhouse, Indianapolis, Indiana

TV/Radio: truTV/101.5 FM

Reach Curt Weiler at cweiler@tallahassee.com or follow him on Twitter @CurtMWeiler.

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