When Alabama hired VCU’s Anthony Grant as head basketball coach three years ago, Crimson Tide freshman JaMychal Green knew what to expect.
Green had played for the under-18 national team on which Grant was an assistant coach, and even in his secondary role, Grant’s priorities were clear.
“I knew his main focus was defense,” Green said.
That commitment has, in Grant’s third season, returned Alabama to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2006. Seeded ninth in the Midwest Regional, the Tide (21-11) faces No. 8 Creighton (28-5) on Friday at Greensboro Coliseum.
Alabama leads the Southeastern Conference in scoring defense (58.1 points per game) and trails only Kentucky in field goal percentage defense (38.8).
“Coach Grant has been doing a great job with preparing us for this opportunity,” said Green, now Alabama’s lone senior. “I think once he got everybody on the same page about playing defense, I think that just helped us win games, and … everybody put two feet into the circle, and that's what he preached. We came together as a team, got our chemistry together and we are here.”
While new to his players, the NCAA tournament is routine for Grant. In his 10 seasons as a Florida assistant, the Gators appeared in eight consecutive NCAAs, reaching the 2000 title game and winning the 2006 national championship.
He then replaced Jeff Capel as VCU’s head coach, when Capel left for Oklahoma. In Grant’s first season, the Rams won the Colonial Athletic Association and, led by Eric Maynor, upset Duke in the first round of the NCAA.
Shortly thereafter, Florida coach Billy Donovan agreed to become the Orlando Magic’s big whistle. Gators athletic director Jeremy Foley promptly boarded a private jet for Richmond to squire Grant.
But Donovan reneged on the Magic, and Grant remained at VCU. But after the Rams returned to the tournament in Grant’s third season, 2009, he headed back to the Southeastern Conference, to Alabama.
Among the players he left behind for his successor, Shaka Smart, were Bradford Burgess and Joey Rodriguez, linchpins of VCU’s improbable Final Four run last season.
Meanwhile, Grant inherited an Alabama program in turmoil. Mark Gottfried, now at North Carolina State, has resigned in January 2009, replaced on an interim basis by assistant Philip Pearson.
The Tide was 17-15 in Grant’s first season, 25-12 last year, losing the NIT championship game to Wichita State.
“Kind of felt we deserved to be in the NCAA last year,” Green said. “We could have been mad at the (selection) committee and not wanted to play (hard) in the NIT, but we made the most of it.”
Quality non-conference victories this season over Wichita State, Purdue and Grant’s old team, VCU, made Alabama a solid at-large NCAA team, despite injuries and suspensions that prompted Grant to start 13 different lineups.
Grant said his players “haven't really asked a lot of questions about (his NCAA experiences). Every team is different. Every year is a new year. I think we had some guys that experienced the postseason for the first time last year in the NIT, and I think that experience alone … helped some of our guys. …
“I think over the course of the season we have played 32 games now, and I think some of the competition that we have faced over the year hopefully has prepared us for what we'll see. I think for the NCAA tournament there's a lot of excitement surrounding the tournament, there's a lot of -- for lack of a better word -- distractions that come along with playing in the NCAA tournament. So for our guys, we have to understand it's a basketball game, and we need to make sure we're prepared to go out and play a very good team.”
Publicly, Grant retains the same stoic facade he wore at VCU. When I asked whether making the NCAAs with just one senior – Green is the Tide’s top scorer and rebounder – was evidence that he was building a true program at Alabama, Grant declined to fully engage.
“That's the goal,” he said. “(But) you never know what a year's going to bring. … So I'm the type of guy, I live in the present. So right now our plan is to build a program that can sustain success and hopefully we're on our way to that, but my focus right now is on today, the opportunity that we have in front of us right now.”
Apparently Grant loses his placid demeanor during practice.
“I knew (from USA Basketball) with him coming there’d be a lot of suicides [sprints].” Green said.
And have there been?
‘Yup,” he said with a smile.
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