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Jan. 19, 2011
By Bill Hass
GREENSBORO, NC - It's clear to everyone that Florida State is a better basketball team when Derwin Kitchen plays aggressively and looks to score as well as set up his teammates.
And now it's becoming clear to Derwin Kitchen, too.
The senior point guard has played that way for two straight games and it's no coincidence that the Seminoles won both, 66-61 over then-No. 1 Duke and 84-71 over NC State. Those wins moved FSU into a three-way tie for first place in the ACC. Boston College, Duke and North Carolina join the Seminoles at 3-1 in conference play.
"It's definitely something to gain momentum on," Kitchen said, "but at the same time you really haven't done anything - two straight wins but you've still got 12 games to go. I felt like the NC State game was one of the most important games of the season because ... it really doesn't mean anything if you beat the No. 1 team and come back and lose the next game."
The Seminoles have been an up-and-down team and they will get an indication how much things have stabilized when they play at Miami Wednesday night. Their goal is to finish in the top four and earn a first-round bye in the ACC Tournament, and Kitchen believes he knows how to achieve that.
"As a team we need to continue to be consistent on the offensive end," Kitchen said. "We have a pretty good defensive effort; it's always our offense that's letting us down."
So how does he feel on the nights when the offense sputters?
"I'm a senior and I'm supposed to be one of the leaders on the team and I'm also the point guard," he said. "So I take full responsibility when the offense is not going at its best. And when it is going like we know it can, I'm part of the reason that it's going good."
Kitchen took a circuitous route to wind up at Florida State. The Jacksonville, Fla., native first committed to Florida, then enrolled at St. John's but left before playing there and moved on Iowa Western Community College. After landing with the Seminoles, Kitchen sat out the first nine games of his sophomore season while awaiting the NCAA Clearinghouse to certify his eligibility.
He couldn't practice with the team then, but once he finally got on the court and played his way into shape, Kitchen became an integral part of things. He helped the Seminoles reach the ACC championship game by scoring the game-winning basket against Georgia Tech and hitting two crucial free throws with 15 seconds left in the win over North Carolina.
It seemed Kitchen was on his way to becoming a big-game star, someone who would elevate his game considerably as a junior. But things were different his second year. As a sophomore, Kitchen was content to play a supplemental role as an off-guard while Toney Douglas ran the point. With Douglas gone, Kitchen moved to the point and, while his game didn't diminish, it didn't take a big jump, either.
"Point guard was a new role for me," he said. "Just the fact that everybody depended on me, just knowing that I have to lead my team. I wasn't ready for that position last year or at the beginning of this year, stepping into that role of trying to be a leader.
"It was something that I really struggled with. I knew so many people depended on me. That's something I'm still working on to this day. I feel like I'm making progress, though."
As an off-guard, Kitchen would work to get open and shoot when Douglas got him the ball. As the point guard, he made setting up his teammates his first priority, sometimes to the detriment of his team. He averaged 8.1 points and nearly doubled his assists from 65 to 122, but something in his game was missing and that carried over to the beginning of this season.
"I have plenty of opportunities to shoot the ball and have wide-open looks," Kitchen said, "but I never look for my own shot because I'm so focused on trying to get my teammates going. I know that in order for this team to succeed and continue to play as good as we have been, I have to look for my shot but at the same time I have to take smart shots."
When the Seminoles lost back-to-back games against Auburn and Virginia Tech, shooting 36 percent and 35.5 percent in the process, the players took matters into their own hands with a players-only meeting the night before the Duke game.
"We were basically just being honest and everyone pretty much just laid it on the line," Kitchen said. "They told me it was obvious that the games where I'm more aggressive we're a better team than when I'm not aggressive. They just told me to look for my shot and be as aggressive as possible whether I'm scoring or creating opportunities for my teammates."
Against Duke, Kitchen rediscovered his old big-game role and scored 22 points, 17 in the second half. He also added 10 rebounds, three assists and three steals. He hit two of game's biggest shots, one when Duke tied game at 42 and he knocked down a 3-pointer from top of circle, and the other when Duke cut the lead to 59-58 and he countered with baseline jumper.
Against NC State, when his scoring wasn't as crucial, he recorded 11 points, three rebounds and two assists.
"I think Kitchen is playing great," said Wolfpack coach Sidney Lowe. "I think he's doing whatever the team needs. He had a great game against Duke and then he played well against us, running the show, taking (the shot) when it was there, getting the ball to the right people. He's playing with a lot of confidence right now and what's happening is the other guys are following his energy and his lead."
Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton said Kitchen has been in transition from off-guard to point guard.
"I think there's always been a little conflict with his role," Hamilton said. "There have been times when he has asserted himself and given us a lot of offensive productivity and there have been times when he has tried to be a distributor.
"He's matured to the point now where he gets into the flow of the game, he figures out what we need him to do and he adjusts. We need him to be more aggressive offensively (but) when he sees that the offense is flowing and we're getting offense other places, he's unselfish enough and content to be the guy who runs the team and get us in and out of our systems."
To some extent Kitchen, who averages 10.3 points and shoots 50.8 percent, still feels the conflict Hamilton referred to, but he's more at ease now.
"That's just when your instincts have to take over," he said. "You have to know what's a good shot and what's a better shot. At the end of the day I am a point guard, so I'm going to always try to get the better shot. If I have a good shot, I'm always trying to create opportunities for my teammates to get a better shot."
One thing that has been consistent throughout Kitchen's career is rebounding. He's averaging 5.7 rebounds, the highest among ACC guards, and has four games in double figures on the boards. Hamilton says he has "a knack just to be in the right place at the right time; he always seems to rotate to where he thinks the ball is going to be."
Miami coach Frank Haith said that aspect of Kitchen's game is an additional concern for the Hurricanes.
"He's a tremendous defensive rebounder so he starts their break," Haith said. "When your point guard is that good a rebounder, you're able to initiate your offense real quickly on the other end."
Kitchen said rebounding is always something he's liked and been able to do.
"Most teams in the ACC use the point guard as the first person to get back on defense," he said, "so it leaves me wide open to go and get the long rebound. I think it helps the transition game when the point guard can just get it and try to push it as fast as possible."
He's also a good ball-handler, with 64 assists against 34 turnovers. He has played 59 minutes since his last turnover.
Overall, Florida State is still a bit of a mystery team. The Seminoles have one outstanding player in forward Chris Singleton, a couple of veterans, some youngsters and two injured players - Xavier Gibson and Ian Miller - they hope to get back.
Then there's Kitchen, whose role is to keep things running smoothly by scoring more when he needs to and running the show when the offense is in gear. Finally, it seems that he's ready to accept that.
"Over the past two weeks," he said, "every time I step on the court I feel like I'm the point guard, I'm the leader. Just be consistent with my effort and try to continue to lead the team and keep everyone on the same page all the time, try to keep the team as consistent as possible."
Bill Hass is a long-time observer of ACC sports. His career at the Greensboro News & Record spanned 36 years, from 1969 until his retirement in March 2006. He is now writing "Bill Hass on the ACC" for theACC.com. His weekly columns will keep fans plugged in to the Atlantic Coast Conference.
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