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March 6, 2008

Grant staying focused on task at VCU

Former Dayton coach Don Donoher will tell you Virginia Commonwealth coach Anthony Grant always could play defense.

So when questions come at Grant about his name surfacing for nearly every major job opening in college basketball, he gets a hand on them and knocks them out of bounds.

"I really don't try to focus on that," Grant said on the Colonial Athletic Association coaches teleconference Tuesday. "My focus is on preparing our team for the challenge that lies ahead of us."

That's exactly what Grant is supposed to say. The Rams (23-6 overall, 15-3 in the CAA) won the league's regular-season title, and they play Saturday in the CAA quarterfinals.

Grant, 41, is in his second season at VCU, but his profile is rising faster than gas prices. It's no surprise, given he is 51-13 with the Rams, beat Mike Krzyzewski's Duke team in the first round of the NCAA Tournament last year, and served a long apprenticeship under Billy Donovan at Florida.

"Coach Donovan and I are very close," Grant said. "I talk to him on a regular basis, not necessarily about games or anything like that, just we have a very strong relationship. The entire staff at UF we've all remained extremely close."

Grant also is tight with Donoher, for whom he played from 1983-87. During that time, the Flyers made two NCAA Tournament appearances and Grant was the team MVP as a senior.

"He was a very classy kid from Day One and has stayed that way," Donoher said. "He was a really useful player for us. He had a well-rounded game. He was smart and tough and could score and defend and rebound."

To this day, Donoher isn't sure how Grant wound up at Dayton after his high school playing days at powerhouse Miami High.

"I guess he wasn't recruited by Miami or the big teams in the state," Donoher said. "One of my assistants, Dan Hipsher, had been the coach at Miami-Dade South Community College and had made some contacts in that area. He had become really good friends with Anthony's high school coach.

"I don't know when the first call happened, but Dan said we have a kid from Miami coming in."

When his playing career was over, Grant returned to the Miami area to teach and coach high school basketball. He spent six seasons there before joining Hipsher when he got the coaching job at Stetson. After one season as an assistant with the Hatters, Donovan hired Grant at Marshall. They spent two years together with the Thundering Herd, then eight seasons in Gainesville. Also on the staff for some if not all of that time were John Pelphrey, now the coach at Arkansas, and Donnie Jones, now the coach at Marshall.

"I'm happy for those guys because they're good guys and they deserve it," Donovan said. "They worked hard and have great respect for the game. I think they have great respect for kids. And with that being said, I think anytime you can help somebody take the next step in their life, it's great to able to be a part of that. John is where he's at because of the job he has done as an assistant and as a head coach. The same thing can be said for Anthony Grant and Donnie Jones. All those guys were extremely loyal and worked very hard and were very close to me and such a part of trying to help build Florida.

"Someone made a comment to me, and I don't know if it's true or not, but it's more difficult to become a Division I head basketball coach than it is to make the NBA. That's how few jobs there are out there, and when you see a couple guys from Florida that were with me, around me, that were able to go on and do this, it's rewarding for me."

Grant is credited with much of the Gators' recruiting success from 1996-2006, including the 2004 class ranked 12th nationally by Rivals.com that produced the nucleus for the consecutive national championships. The class was composed of Corey Brewer, Al Horford, Joakim Noah and Taurean Green.

Now Grant is in the difficult position of being one of the hottest names in coaching while trying to get a team ready for the rest of March. He has to convince his players and recruits that they are his priority and not his next opportunity.

"It bothers him because it's a distraction with the kids in his program," Donoher said. "'Is coach going to leave us? Is he trying to leave us?' None of this is his doing."

Donoher, 76, had no such dilemma. Dayton was his alma mater. Despite his success, including eight NCAA Tournament bids and one national-championship game appearance in 24 seasons, he never had any desire to leave.

"Anthony's situation is different," Donoher said. "He has to listen. There are BCS schools out there, and how many of those jobs come available? Congressmen want to become president, right?"

Donoher believes Grant will be ready for whatever comes next.

"I watch his team it's almost like I'm watching Billy," Donoher said. "He needs to turn up the defense, they go into full-court (pressure). He was well-mentored by Dan and Billy, and Anthony can think for himself.

"He's a smart coach and a good coach. He's a good man. I can't emphasize that enough. He came from a good family, wonderful people. He's almost too good to be true."

They're listening, Coach. From Baton Rouge to Bloomington to Columbia, they're listening.

McCLELLAN'S PICK SIX

1. The battle for the ACC. It's North Carolina-Duke, the sequel. The Blue Devils ruled the first matchup from start to finish, but the Tar Heels played without Ty Lawson. Since their first meeting, UNC has been the better team. They haven't lost, while Duke has lost twice and escaped by a point at NC State. The Heels won without Lawson until last Saturday, when he returned to play 21 minutes against Boston College. He had 10 points, three assists and no turnovers in 20 minutes Tuesday night in a win over Florida State. The Blue Devils haven't lost at Cameron Indoor Stadium this season (15-0). It shapes up to be another great game with a lot on the line.

2. The battle for the Big East. After a shocking home loss to Cincinnati to start the Big East's league schedule, Louisville stood 9-4 overall and questions abounded. Now, the Cardinals (24-6, 14-3) are riding a nine-game winning streak that would have been 12 in a row if not for a two-point loss at Connecticut. The winning streak includes a 59-51 decision over Georgetown on Feb. 9. The Hoyas (24-4, 14-3) will be seeking revenge when the teams meet Saturday at the Verizon Center. Georgetown is 15-0 at home this season. Louisville is 8-2 on the road. It's going to be another low-scoring game, but there should be high drama. Oh, yeah, the winner is the Big East regular-season champ, too.

3. Crowd control. The last time Memphis and UAB hooked up, things got a little out of control. The atmosphere at FedEx Forum should be quite charged for the rematch. The Blazers (21-8, 11-3) are an NCAA bubble team, and it's fair to say a road win over the Tigers (28-1, 14-0) would put them over the top and into the NCAA Tournament. Much easier said than done. Blazers swingman Robert Vaden (22 ppg) has been on a torrid shooting streak since sitting out a game against Rice with a slight groin injury. In the past five games, he's averaging 27.4 points and has shot 48.2 percent (27 of 56) from 3-point range. He had 27 against the Tigers in the 79-78 near-upset Feb. 16. Chris Douglas-Roberts had 32 for Memphis.

4. How to shoot 27 percent and win. No, that's not a misprint. Stanford had its worst shooting game in eight years during its first meeting with USC this season, and somehow the Cardinal (24-4, 13-3) still managed a 52-46 victory. OK, it helps that the Trojans shot only 34.7 percent and committed 23 turnovers. Hopefully their second matchup this one on USC's home floor will be more aesthetically pleasing.

5. Cowboys on a roll. Oklahoma State has risen from the ashes and suddenly is deserving of being called a "hot" team. The Cowboys (16-13, 7-8) have won five of six. This on the heels of a six-game losing streak that left them 10-11 and all but dead in the water. We're not ready to declare this an NCAA Tournament team, especially with the regular-season finale at Texas. Then again, a road win over the powerful Longhorns (25-5, 12-3) would put the Cowboys in the mix, and a couple of wins in the Big 12 tournament could put them in the field of 65.

6. Stand up, Spartans. Michigan State finally won a big game. The Spartans (23-6, 11-5) did it in big fashion, blowing out Indiana 103-74 on Sunday. It was their first outing after scoring just 42 points and losing by 15 at Wisconsin. MSU is a team with enough talent and depth to make a run to the Final Four. It also has scored 63 or fewer points six times this season. The Spartans need to win their final two Big Ten games, both on the road, and make at least the Big Ten Tournament final to renew the faith.

Bob McClellan is the college basketball editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at bmcclellan@rivals.com.



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