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College of Charleston is finally back in the Big Dance thanks to Earl Grant’s ‘fighter mentality’

The Cougars are headed to the NCAA tournament after a 19-year drought.

NCAA Basketball: Charleston Classic-Central Florida vs Charleston Joshua S. Kelly-USA TODAY Sports

CHARLESTON, S.C. — College of Charleston head basketball coach Earl Grant bought himself a new suit last week.

As an assistant at Wichita State under Gregg Marshall, Grant and Marshall would punctuate NCAA tournament bids by traveling to Charleston and buying new suits at the southern chic 319 Men in the city’s historic district. When asked whether he revived that tradition, he doesn’t hesitate.

“We’ve already done it, try to keep the tradition alive. Took the staff in. At least we know we’ll look good for the tournament.” He laughs. “Everybody got a suit, tie, and shirt. Dark blue suit. The first time I went there was 2002. I was an assistant at the Citadel, and I was making about $35,000 a year, so I could only get a tie.”

The 40-year old coach carries a rather stoic air into Friday’s media availability for someone who made College of Charleston history just three days previous. Three days earlier, his Cougar outfit punched their ticket through to the Big Dance for the first time since the Bill Clinton administration. Remarkably, he in fact played in the last NCAA tournament that CofC did, as a guard for Georgia College — in 1999.

What’s further celebratory about this particular mid-major’s trip after so long a tournament hiatus is that the Cougars went dancing four times in the mid and late 90s under legendary CofC coach John Kresse, who reportedly received a standing ovation upon walking into Tuesday night’s CAA tournament finale in the North Charleston Coliseum. There was a time that CofC could consistently entertain real postseason designs, and to be sure Kresse oversaw Cougar basketball campaigns that scraped up against No. 16 AP national rankings in 1997 and 1999.

The Cougs earned No. 12 and No. 8 tourney seeds in those years, respectively, and notched their first and only tournament win in 97 — a 75-66 upset of No. 5 Maryland — before narrowly losing in the second round to eventual national champs Arizona, 73-69. Now, they’re headed back to the madness of March, and it’d be an understatement to describe Charleston’s general mood as riveted.

Grant is standing on the College of Charleston’s home court in TD Arena, a classically Charlestonian red-brick building in the old city. A monument for staunch segregationist John C. Calhoun sits one block to the north, and one block east from there rests Mother Emanuel AME. This is the Holy City — a period piece of antebellum Americana that nowadays offers up some of the country’s premier culinary and cultural interests.

It’s a food town and still for the most part a quiet, southern spot, with a vibrant downtown college scene that attracts students from all over the country.

Charleston Marks One Month Anniversary Of Church Shootings Photo by John Moore/Getty Images

Further and more to the point, TD Arena is not two miles southeast of Citadel’s campus, yet Grant is far, far removed from his days on the Bulldogs’ staff. Now, he’s in his fourth year at the helm of the CofC Cougars and waiting for Selection Sunday in order to find out where and whom he’ll be playing in the Big Dance’s first round.

It’s that first round matchup that’s on everyone’s mind last Friday, at least everyone holding a microphone in front of his face. Someone asks Grant if he’s been scouting potential opening round foes — Tennessee, for instance — and he’s curt. “Complete waste of time.” They’re gonna focus on themselves, he says.

(College of Charleston received the tournament’s top 13-seed on Selection Sunday, and they’ll face Auburn in San Diego.)

When asked where he’d like to play, he grins. “They can send us to Sioux Falls, I don’t care. I’m just excited for the school and the community.”

Grant’s four years in charge of Cougar hoops have grown steadily ascendent. The team finished 9-24 overall in his first season, and the team’s conference record of 3-15 was good for dead last in the Colonial Athletic Association. The following season saw the Cougars go 17-14 (8-10, CAA), and last season they finished 25-10 (14-4, CAA) and missed the NCAA tournament only by virtue of losing to UNC Wilmington in the CAA tournament’s title game, 78-69. The Cougs would go on to lose to Colorado State in the NIT’s opening round.

This year, they finished with 26 wins and the league’s auto-bid to the Big Dance. Four years of work, and 19 years of waiting.

NCAA Basketball: Charleston at Louisiana State Stephen Lew-USA TODAY Sports

Grant addressed the program’s maturation over his four-year tenure with a handful of media members on Friday. “I thought it would take three years to be really competitive. We needed two or three recruiting classes, and I thought by year four, you should be a team that’s in the top two of the conference. Four years is a long time.”

Four years is a long time. Four years ago Grant was coaching Canyon Barry at CofC, who would later use his graduate transfer opportunity to slot in as a reliable sixth man at Florida and travel to a Final Four.

“You can win better with players that have lost bad,” Grant says of the guys on that 9-24 team. “Players that have lost a lot of games is part of the formula for a team that can be hungry.”

One-guard Joe Chealey was a sophomore on that 9-24 club, and he certainly appreciates the journey this team has made. “It was humble beginnings, man, but we had a vision of what we wanted to get to. Coach called it a mountaintop.” I ask him what specific motivational tactics Grant uses to push the team to get better. “Fighter’s mentality, he wants to get dirty, and that’s where we get our team identity from.”

Interestingly, Grant has only drawn one technical foul in his entire career, during a frustrating 2015 loss to Towson. “It was awful. This was just an awful night. Everything was going against us.” He says of the episode, then chuckles. “I didn’t say much, I just grabbed my jacket and threw it into like the seventh row.”

That fighter’s mentality manifests itself in his team’s defensive success, which ranks 82nd in the country in points allowed per game with 68.8. The team also ranks No. 6 in turnovers committed, a testament to how clean and disciplined they can play. Certainly this year’s CAA title game was a dogfight, where the Cougars trailed Northeastern by 17 points at halftime, only to come back and win, 83-76, in overtime.

I ask Grant about that night’s defensive struggles, especially around the perimeter, where CofC allowed Northeastern to splash down 15-of-27 threes on the night.

“The moment was big, the crowd was big, playing in the championship game last year, I thought that we would be more poised ... The more Northeastern made big shots, we started to press and guys thought ‘Hey, I gotta go out there and make a play,’ and it actually hurt us.”

In that vein, Grant this week in practice wants to stress calmness and scheme in the lead-up to the team’s tournament appearance. Chealey and company are heartily onboard.

Every player I talk to agrees that the support and camaraderie from students and Charlestonians around town has been tremendous (they also all agree that hot dogs are not in fact sandwiches, for what that’s worth).

Grant, for his part, even got a call from mayor John Tecklenburg. “Mayor Tecklenburg, that was a surprising one. I talked to him and his wife. They’re proud. They know what it means for the program to get back to the NCAA tournament. They’ve been around, they’re Charlestonians.”

Charlestonians. Grant and his guys appreciate that this is about Charleston as much as it is about the College and team.

That people here in the Holy City should feel proud of what this club has accomplished is only natural. A national spotlight has been trained on the South Carolina low country, after all.

That some 13,000 people should scream their heads off on a March Tuesday night with Bill Murray sitting in the front row as the Cougars advance to the Big Dance is quintessentially a Charleston experience. He lives here, and he’s a part-owner of the city’s New York Yankees affiliate River Dogs minor league team.

That Earl Grant predicted this moment four years ago and executed it as planned is impossibly prescient. But he’s focused on the team’s conditioning and zone defense this week, just like any other week.