— If it wasn’t obvious then, it should be pretty clear now why Alabama only interviewed one candidate during its search for a new basketball coach. The Crimson Tide identified Anthony Grant as their man, then reeled him in and rewarded him with a seven-year contract worth about $1.8 million per year.
Now in the second season of a project aimed at elevating the Tide to national prominence, it seems that was more than a solid investment. Alabama ranks among the most pleasant surprises in college basketball this season with a 16-8 record and an 8-2 conference mark that has given the Tide a solid grip on first place in the SEC West.
That doesn’t mean Alabama has its ticket punched to the NCAA tournament. There's work to be done. But nothing was expected of the Tide, which means Grant has the program headed in the right direction and ahead of schedule. Most had Bama finishing third or fourth in the West.
A 68-66 victory over Kentucky on Jan. 18 made everyone sit up and take notice. And Saturday’s 74-64 win over Mississippi solidified Alabama’s as the SEC's top defensive team. Alabama picked up 13 votes in this week’s Associated Press poll — more than Florida State, Marquette, Baylor, Minnesota or UNLV.
“People doubted us as a team and we’re showing them that we can play anybody and we’re a legitimate team,” leading scorer JaMychal Green said after finishing with 18 points and 11 rebounds in that Kentucky win.
Grant has been groomed for success. Anyone who witnessed his work at Virginia Commonwealth, or his enormous impact as an assistant coach at Florida, isn’t surprised. Last season was the first time since 1998 one of Grant’s teams didn’t participate in the NCAA or NIT. That’s a streak many coaches can only dream about.
You may remember Grant, 44, almost became coach at Florida when Billy Donovan flirted with a move to the NBA. Grant was ready for the big time then, but he had to wait when Donovan decided to stay put.
After spending 12 years together at Marshall and Florida, Donovan knows Grant better than anyone else in the game.
“I have great respect and admiration for Anthony,” Donovan told the St. Petersburg Times last season before their first SEC meeting. “There are a lot of similarities, we’re doing a lot of similar things on offense and defense.”
Defense has been the key for the Tide this season, especially in SEC games. This week’s SEC statistics show Alabama leading the conference in scoring defense (58.4 ppg), field goal percentage defense (.368), and steals (9.5). Only Vanderbilt ranks better in three-point field goal defense and the Tide is fourth in blocked shots.
“I think we’ve had to rely on our defense in every game we’ve played.” Grant said. “I think it has been pretty consistent for us all year, not just in the league. If we defend up to our ability, we’ll have a chance in every game. I think our guys have bought into that.”
Grant’s first season at Alabama ended with a 17-15 record and a 6-10 SEC record. There were injuries, suspensions and three SEC defeats that came by one point. Four conference games went down to the final possession. There’s no doubt that the familiarity with Grant’s system has helped in the second year.
“What makes them so good, obviously, is that they are an older and more experienced team,” said LSU coach Trent Johnson, who faces Grant and the Tide Thursday in Baton Rouge.
To make the NCAA tournament, Alabama will have to finish strong. Non-conference losses to Seton Hall, Iowa, St. Peter’s and Providence serve as a drag on the Tide’s RPI, which is 87 this week. Alabama also lost early to Purdue and Oklahoma State.
But there’s no doubt Grant is solidifying his status as a young and rising coach. With several big-time jobs, possibly including North Carolina State, Texas Tech, Georgia Tech, Illinois, Arkansas and Utah, about to become available, there will be several athletic directors trying to find their own version of Anthony Grant in March and April.
Here are some names (with their records this season) you might hear mentioned when the coaching carousel goes into motion:
Chris Mooney, Richmond (20-6, 9-2 Atlantic 10)
Somebody from one of the BCS conferences should jump at the chance to hire Mooney. He is Princeton educated and has elevated Richmond into one of the A-10 elite programs. He would be at the top of my list.
Gregg Marshall, Wichita State (21-5, 12-3 Missouri Valley)
Marshall was disappointed his team didn’t make the NCAA field last season. The guy is a real competitor and a good recruiter. He would bring electricity to any program.
Ben Jacobson, Northern Iowa (18-9, 9-6 Missouri Valley)
You probably remember Jacobson’s Panthers from their NCAA upset of Kansas last year. Enough said.
Cuonzo Martin, Missouri State (20-6, 12-3 Missouri Valley)
Martin defined toughness as a Purdue Boilermaker. Last year he led the Bears to the championship of the Collegeinsider.com Tournament, so he ended his season with a win — just like Mike Krzyzewski. Missouri State is tied for first with Wichita State.
John Dunne, St. Peter’s (15-11, 10-5 Metro Atlantic)
The Peacocks are in a three-way tie for second, but three games behind Fairfield in the MAAC. Dunne stresses defense as the way to win championships and he’s trying to get St. Peter’s back to the NCAA’s for the first time since 1995.
Tim Miles, Colorado State (17-7, 7-3 Mountain West)
The Rams are in third place in the Mountain West, behind BYU and San Diego State. After three years of gradual improvement, Miles has put CSU in contention and is turning some heads.
Randy Bennett, Saint Mary’s (22-4, 10-1 West Coast)
This is the breakthrough year for the Gaels, who try every season to climb over Gonzaga in the standings and national awareness. Saint Mary’s has a two game lead over San Francisco and Gonzaga. Bennett has led the Gaels to win totals of 25, 28 and 28 the previous three seasons. Will someone steal him away after this season?
Tony Jones, Tennessee assistant
Jones went 5-3 filling in for Bruce Pearl during the eight-game suspension handed down by the SEC. Jones has all the qualifications. He could be Pearl’s successor if the NCAA comes down hard on the program and Pearl officially gets terminated (he’s already been fired). Some think Jones does much of the actual coaching while Pearl just goes through all those wild motions in front of the bench.
Joe Dooley, Kansas assistant
Dooley has been with Bill Self for the entire eight-year tenure since Roy Williams left KU and Self came over from Illinois. Dooley is highly considered as a recruiter and an assistant. His name comes up quite often and it is only a matter of time before he becomes a head coach.