Roll Tide, and VCU, too! ‘Bama coach on wild ride

All four coaches in the NIT semifinals gathered for photos

Monday, three wearing snappy suits and ties. Anthony Grant sported

a red Alabama pullover.

If the Crimson Tide coach wanted to remind everyone which team

was his, there was good reason. Grant took as many questions – if

not more – about his former squad at Virginia Commonwealth than his

current one from Tuscaloosa.

”I’m the coach at Alabama,” he patiently reminded

reporters.

Yes, March has turned into a wild and magnificent ride for just

about anyone with ties to VCU, and Grant is no different.

He spent three seasons on the Rams’ sideline, guiding them to a

pair of NCAA tournaments and a first-round upset of Duke in 2007

before bolting for a bigger job at Alabama two years ago.

Though his team was left out of the NCAAs this month despite

winning the SEC West, Grant quickly got his guys refocused and the

Crimson Tide has rolled into Madison Square Garden, where it plays

Colorado on Tuesday night for a spot in Thursday’s championship

game.

Wichita State faces Washington State in the first semifinal.

Along the way, Grant has kept an eye on his ex-players at VCU.

Darlings of the NCAA tournament, they’ve captivated the country

with their underdog run to the Final Four in Houston.

”I’m just extremely happy and proud for them and what they’ve

accomplished,” Grant said. ”Obviously, when the time is right I

think myself and my family and everybody that had a chance to be a

part of that group certainly will be rooting them on and hoping

that they can finish it out with a championship.”

Suddenly, some of Grant’s overshadowed recruits have blossomed

into national stars. He said he’s watched several VCU games in the

NCAA tournament but missed Sunday’s stirring upset of top-seeded

Kansas because Alabama had practice.

When the Tide’s season is done, Grant is looking forward to

watching the 11th-seeded Rams take on Butler in the Final Four on

Saturday.

”That will be a lot of fun,” he said.

But first, Alabama (24-11) goes for its initial NIT title in its

sixth trip to the semifinals.

A national power in football, the Tide is trying to build some

basketball success behind freshman point guard Trevor Releford,

sophomore forward Tony Mitchell and 6-foot-8 junior JaMychal Green,

who surprised Grant recently by saying he would stay for his senior

season rather than jump to the NBA.

After struggling early against nonconference competition,

Alabama has won 19 of its last 24 games – including a victory over

Final Four participant Kentucky. The Crimson Tide went a

school-record 19-0 at home this season but was left out when the

NCAA field was announced on Selection Sunday.

”Obviously, I’d be misleading you if I told you there wasn’t

disappointment,” Grant said. ”But I think our guys have done a

very good job of turning the page and moving on.”

Alabama beat Coastal Carolina, New Mexico and Miami (all at

home) to make it to New York. Next up, an opponent that also was

seeded No. 1 in its corner of the NIT bracket.

Colorado (24-13) was shocked when it was snubbed by the NCAA

tournament selection committee, and several college basketball

analysts cried foul. But the Buffaloes used that as motivation and

reeled off NIT wins over Texas Southern, California and Kent

State.

”It shows that we can play out in Colorado. It shows that the

program is going in a different direction. The future is bright for

us,” said leading scorer Alec Burks, who averages 20.5 points.

The game pits Colorado’s high-octane offense against Alabama’s

stingy defense.

Led by Burks and senior Cory Higgins, the Buffaloes rank 11th in

the nation in scoring at 80.1 points per game. The Tide, meanwhile,

allow only 59.2, eighth-best in the land.

Higgins needs 13 points to tie Richard Roby’s school record of

2,001. Grant called Burks ”one of the best players in the

country.”

”The one thing we’ve tried to reiterate to our players is the

tradition, all the great coaches, all the great players who have

played in this tournament, who have coached in this tournament.

It’s a special thing,” Colorado coach Tad Boyle said.

”You never know what life is going to throw at you and three

weeks ago, 2 1/2 weeks ago, we were thrown a little bit of a

curveball. But we hit it, because our guys have responded the right

way. They have not whined about it, cried about it. We’re not going

to do that.”

No. 2 seed Washington State (22-12) has had three prominent

players suspended this season after being cited for misdemeanor

marijuana possession, including leading scorer Klay Thompson, the

son of former NBA player Mychal Thompson, the top pick in the 1978

draft.

”I think where he takes it from his dad is in the genes I think

is that warrior-type attitude. He doesn’t really show it

emotionally, but he’s a competitor. He’s a real competitor. He

brings it most every possession,” coach Ken Bone said.

Bone will have his full roster available against the Shockers

(27-8), who finished second in the Missouri Valley Conference. They

are carrying the mid-major flag in the NIT just as VCU and Butler

have done in the NCAAs.

”I like to use the term non-BCS, because there’s very little

that’s mid-major about our program. We are a first-class program,”

said coach Gregg Marshall, excited to step inside Madison Square

Garden for the first time.

”This mid-major label or whatever is a misnomer. The bottom

line is there’s a lot of great teams, there’s a lot of great

players, a lot of great coaches. And when given the opportunity on

a neutral floor, you see it more and more and more,” he added. ”I

think people get caught up too often in, if it’s not BCS it’s not

good enough. That’s not the case.”

The Cougars and Shockers are in the semifinals for the first

time. Colorado is the only one of the four teams with an NIT title,

which it won way back in 1940.