lorida State's Charlie Ward is a consummate point guard, one of the best in the nation. The 6-foot-1-inch junior led the Atlantic Coast Conference in steals last year with 2.7 a game. With him in the lineup, the Seminoles have gone 31-12 over the past two seasons and last year won six league road games -- more than any other first-year ACC team in history.
He is sharp, agile, athletic -- and, to the delight of the University of Massachusetts, unavailable to play basketball right now.
Ward is also the starting quarterback of a Seminoles football team that still has a shot at a national championship. The latest athlete to excel in two sports, Ward is expected to miss the basketball team's first 11 games, including the matchup against the Minutemen tonight at 7:30.
For UMass, it is the season opener, but Florida State is already 2-2, having had an impressive run in the preseason National Invitation Tournament. The Seminoles dismantled Siena and Iowa State before losing to eventual champion Indiana in overtime. Florida State is coming off an 86-83 loss to UCLA in the consolation of the NIT, a game the Seminoles led by 1 point with 10 seconds left.
"I watched the Iowa State game and Florida State looks really good," said UMass coach John Calipari. "Even without Ward, they are a talented team."
Florida State is one of two highly regarded teams the Minutemen will face in their first four games. The other -- on the road -- is Oklahoma, which is undoubtedly eager to avenge last year's blowout at the hands of UMass.
"Don't blame me for the schedule, blame television," said Calipari, whose team will try to pick up where it left off last year -- at 30-5 with the school's second NCAA tournament bid. "Television called for those games."
The Minutemen, who lost just four games on the road last year (including one in the NCAA tournament), play just one home game before Christmas.
This won't be the first time Florida State has been without Ward; he suffered a shoulder injury last year in the NCAA tournament, and the Seminoles' season ended shortly thereafter. But they have plenty of players capable of taking up the slack.
The Seminoles, who were ranked eighth in the Associated Press presason poll and are currently 11th, have gotten balanced scoring. Calipari's primary concern figured to be last year's leading scorer, Sam Cassell, and last year's second-leading scorer, Doug Edwards. The latter has been called a Dominique Wilkins clone.
But the big story this season has been ACC Rookie of the Year Bob Sura, who is leading the team with 25.5 points a game and is also averaging 8.0 rebounds. Sura scored 20 of his game-high 27 points against UCLA in the second half.
Cassell is second in scoring with 19.8 a game and Edwards follows with 18.7 points and 8.0 rebounds. Even without Ward, FSU has four players who averaged double figures last season.
But coach Pat Kennedy must worry not only about missing Ward. Last Wednesday, the Seminoles lost starting guard Chuck Graham for the season with a knee injury. Graham averaged 13 points last season.
ALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- The Florida State players didn't have time to ponder; they were too busy fighting to match Massachusetts basket for basket. Neither did the coaching staff, which tried to devise some lineup, some set play, some defense that would make a lasting impression. But the Seminoles fans wondered and worried. When they weren't scolding officials or taunting UMass players, they were squirming in their seats, staring at the clock, wondering when the Seminoles would put their smaller, slower opponent away.
But for 39 minutes, Massachusetts would not go away. The Minutemen clawed. They scrapped. They grimaced and squinted and banged and withstood an array of defenses. Even in the last minute, after two mistakes helped Florida State to a 3-point cushion, UMass didn't go away. Florida State finally sent the Minutemen away sullen, but coach John Calipari was more than pleased that his team's bite is back.
Calipari was worried his team would get blown out in its season opener by a hungry Florida State squad; instead, the 11th-ranked Seminoles escaped with a 67-64 win, avoiding major embarrassment and a three-game losing streak. Forward Doug Edwards, who has been compared to Dominique Wilkins, scored 10 of the Seminoles' last 13 points, including two free throws with :8.2 left, and the 19th-ranked Minutemen failed to convert on a 3-point attempt at the other end.
Edwards finished with 19 points and 12 boards for Florida State, which was matched in rebounds (34-34) despite having a taller, more athletic front line. Florida State entered the game having lost two heartbreakers in the preseason National Invitation Tournament (to Indiana, 81-78, in overtime and to UCLA, 86-83, after leading with 10 seconds left). The Seminoles were anxious to shed the losing streak, and many figured UMass would be their prey. Instead, Florida State fell behind by as many as 9 in the first half, trailed, 39-37, at halftime (despite outshooting UMass in the first half, 56-51) and never led by more than 3 in the second half. Florida State hadn't scored so few points since since losing to Duke, 75-62, last Jan. 30.
UMass sophomore forward Lou Roe was the Seminoles' biggest problem. He scored 19 points, added 14 rebounds and blocked two shots. Sophomore Mike Williams added 16 points for UMass, which hung tough despite shooting 28 percent from the floor in the second half and turning the ball over 19 times.
"This is the kind of basketball game we like to play -- rough-and-tumble, you take it to our nose and we take it to your nose," said Calipari. "We tried to break their rhythm, but we couldn't. We did not execute well at the end of the game, but I didn't expect to. This is our first game. I can live with that. The thing I like is that we played hard and we played with enthusiasm."
Just when Florida State looked primed to put the game away before Edwards' last free throws, UMass responded. With 1:04 left and Florida State up, 65-62, Williams stole the ball from guard Sam Cassell, and as he drove to the basket for a breakaway layup, he was hit hard by forward Bob Sura, who was assessed an intentional foul. UMass guard Derek Kellogg (shooting for Williams) hit two free throws, but on the ensuing possession, Roe turned the ball over with 51.9 seconds left.
Cassell missed a jumper with nine seconds left, but Edwards got the rebound, was fouled immediately and hit the final 2 points on free throws.
"UMass is a really good team; I thought the key to beating them would be stopping Harper Williams and Lou Roe," said Seminoles coach Pat Kennedy. ''Obviously, Roe had a good game, but I thought we did a good job on Williams." Indeed, Williams finished with just 9 points, 8 in the first half.
But Calipari isn't fretting. "They needed this win. This was a learning experience for us," he said. "I was just trying to see where we were. I learned a lot about our team, as I did about theirs."