NEW YORK - There came a point during the cluster interview here Monday afternoon when Anthony Grant said - with a good natured chuckle and a broad smile - "I'm the coach at Alabama." This was about 10 minutes in, and I'm not so sure he was smiling on the inside or if that good natured chuckle was masking a desire to drop a grenade in the midst of the digital recorders, cameras and notepads.
Yes, Grant is the basketball coach at Alabama. Yes, he was the coach just two seasons ago at Virginia Commonwealth. VCU - no longer "VC-Who?" - has reached the Final Four of this season's NCAA Tournament, so you know where the media wretches were headed with Grant and what they wanted (and most of it wasn't about Tuesday night's Alabama-Colorado matchup in the semifinals of the NIT).
Here's what the wretches got:
Q: How about those Rams?
A: "How about the Rams? I'm really happy and proud of those guys. It's been a great run and hopefully they can keep going . . . I couldn't be more happy for them."
Q: How many of those guys did you recruit?
A: "I was fortunate to be a part of that program for three years and I'm proud of what they've been able to do . . . yeah, I recruited some of them."
Q: Was it a difficult decision for you to leave VCU for Alabama?
A: "It's difficult because of the relationships you establish . . . but seeing the success they're having, there's a sense of enjoyment I get from that. I love the opportunity I'm getting to build our program to the point where we can compete for championships as well. I look at it as a win-win for everybody involved."
Q: With Butler and VCU getting to the Final Four, what does that say about the caliber of play now in the so-called "mid-majors?"
A: "I think it's great for the game and college basketball . . . Butler's been to back-to-back Final Fours, now VCU is in there. I think it speaks to great parity in college basketball. For every team out there, I think it makes them say we have an opportunity if we do what we need to do. It speaks to having veterans in your program . . . it's a great story."
Q: What were your feelings when VCU got chosen (for the NCAAs) and Alabama didn't?
A: "I was extremely happy for them . . . I don't think anybody who achieves a level of success gets there by wishing anything bad for somebody else. Our situation is our situation. There was disappointment for our seniors. But we're excited about our season to this point."
It was right about here, with yet another VCU-related question lobbed his way, that Grant - gently and with good humor - might have wanted to pull the pin on that grenade. He let it be known that he was now coaching in Tuscaloosa, where Nick Saban and Crimson Tide football casts a very, very long shadow, and he is no longer in Richmond, where football's shadow is, ah, not so noticeable.
Grant, a youthful 44-year-old who looks as if he could still be playing (he did in his day for Dayton), is not bothered by Saban's sport and the craziness that accompanies it. The dollar-and-cents, heart-and-soul commitment to football at The Bear's school isn't likely to change. Grant knew that when he signed on, but he believes it can also be a basketball school. His track record - 76-25 in three seasons at VCU, 41-26 in two at 'Bama - suggests he can make it happen.
"I spent two years at the University of Florida," he said. "I looked at it as a great opportunity because I know the history and tradition at Alabama; it's got a very rich basketball history in terms of individual players and teams under C.M. Newton, Wimp Sanderson, Mark Gottfried . . . I felt like it was a great opportunity to come in and build a program and compete for championships."
Yeah, basketball coaches can win in Tuscaloosa, too; it just hasn't been done so much in recent years. Flashback to the '80s and early '90s under Sanderson (267-119, 12 seasons), or the '70s under Newton (211-123, 12 seasons), who is now the chairman of the NIT. 'Bama basketball was pretty good then. But it slipped under David Hobbs and Mark Gottfried, who preceded Grant. The Tide's last NCAA Tournament appearance was in 2006, its last postseason appearance in the '07 NIT.
Like CU's current crop of seniors, 'Bama's hasn't played this deep into March. And like the Buffs, the Tide believed it should have been in the Big Dance. But it has gotten over the fact that it didn't happen and has capitalized on its No. 1 NIT seed to join CU on Broadway.
On Selection Sunday, Grant's team was at an on-campus watch party when the no-news-is-bad-news verdict was delivered on CBS. The Tide had won the SEC West (12-4) and after three NIT home wins now is 24-11. 'Bama won by two in the regular season against eventual SEC champion/Final Four participant Kentucky, but lost by 14 to the Wildcats in the SEC tournament.
Still, Tide forward JaMychal Green, a 6-8 junior who recently said he would return for his senior season, called being left out of the 68-team NCAA field "a tough pill to swallow. Everyone was mad initially . . . just really upset. Coach Grant called us later on and told us about (the NIT) and that it was a blessing for us that we could keep on playing.
"For us to be able to play for a championship, we're grateful. It's good to be in the postseason. This is my first time (and) it's good to still be getting some recognition. But we're two great teams (CU, Alabama) that are supposed to be in the NCAA Tournament."
Although he might not have been at the time, Grant on Monday was more stoic than steamed about the NCAA snub: "It's an invitational tournament, just like this one. My focus is, we're excited to have the opportunity to compete in this tournament."
But he also conceded, "For our seniors and everybody in the program, there's a disappointment when you don't have a chance to compete in the NCAA Tournament, but I think our guys have done a very good job of turning the page and moving on. I think our guys have played really well down the stretch. We're champions of the Western Division of the SEC, one game away from having the chance to win the overall SEC title. We're in the postseason for the first time in a lot of years. This is a great tournament; I feel we've earned the right to be in New York."
That's what the Buffs have been saying for the past two weeks, too. They've also been saying - and this is coming directly from Boyle and his staff - that in the NIT, the hungrier team usually wins. "But that's no different than any game all year," said CU sophomore Alec Burks. "We hear that all the time - and we know it's true."
CU and 'Bama have had three common opponents this season. The Tide defeated Georgia to end the regular season (65-57) and again to open the league's postseason tourney (65-59, OT). UGA beat visiting CU 83-74 in the Buffs' second game. New Mexico, one of the three teams Alabama defeated in the NIT to reach New York (74-67), beat CU 89-76 in the Las Vegas Classic. Oklahoma State, which lost to CU in Boulder (75-71), defeated Alabama 68-60 in a holiday tournament in Oklahoma City.
Grant might have said otherwise in the hours after Selection Sunday, but Monday he declined to say his team was on a mission to prove anything to any group - and you know who that would be.
"We're just trying to win our next game . . . that's been our philosophy all year long," he said. "We control what we can control. That's really where we are."
He also declined to compare CU to any team 'Bama faced this season in the SEC: "That's tough to say. Colorado is Colorado. I wouldn't want to do them a disservice by comparing them to anybody else; I think they're a very good team in their own right . . . I think their team has been outstanding over the last couple of months of the season. For us, we've had success this year on the defensive end. For us to have a chance in this game, we're going to have to be outstanding on the defensive end. It should be a good matchup."
Washington State and Wichita State will disagree, but Tuesday night's second semifinal (7 p.m. MDT, ESPN2) is the best pairing of the tournament: Up-tempo offense (CU) vs. down-and-dirty defense ('Bama). If they had their druthers, Grant, Buffs Coach Tad Boyle and their teams would be preparing for that other Final Four.
But they're still playing - and playing for a championship in a pretty bright spotlight. For both schools in late March, that's an upgrade.
NIT TIP-INS: The Buffs visited the New York Stock Exchange on Monday morning and attended an NIT Welcome Dinner Monday night at The Boathouse in Central Park . . . . The four teams' first glimpse of Madison Square Garden comes in shootarounds on Tuesday . . . . MSG is undergoing an $850 million renovation that will see the venerable venue shut down for a short period later this spring . . . . ESPN's Fran Franchilla believes the NIT's and the NCAA's last four teams are "very evenly matched." The NCAA's Final Four: VCU, Butler, Kentucky and UConn . . . . Washington State Coach Ken Bone on leaving Pullman, Wash., for New York: "There's not a lot going on in Pullman right now, so we decided to get out of town. We saw more people in Times Square than we do sometimes in Pullman." . . . . Crimson Tide point guard Trevor Releford is a freshman from Kansas City (Bishop Miege). Burks, of Grandview, Mo., knows Releford well, having competed against him in summer AAU ball. Said Burks: "He's my boy." When 'Bama hired Grant two years ago, Releford was among his first recruiting targets. "We thought he could have an impact on our team and he's exceeded our expectations," Grant said . . . . Boyle on being by-passed by the NCAA: "You never know what life is going to throw at you. We got thrown a curve ball - we hit it."