Canisius coach John Beilein couldn't hide his smile Sunday.
Three years after taking over a program that had five straight losing seasons, he was discussing the team he has led to the National Invitation Tournament Final Four.
But the serious side of Beilein came out when he talked about Virginia Tech, the Griffs' semifinal opponent tonight in Madison Square Garden (7, ESPN, Radio 1230).
The Hokies were the highest-rated team in the nation not to make the NCAA Tournament. They play in the Metro Conference, which was ranked No. 3 this year in the Ratings Percentage Index. They are 23-10 overall and six of the losses are by six points or less.
"I think we're playing the favorite in the tournament," Beilein said emphatically during a news conference at the Marriott Marquis hotel. "They've got a ton of talent and we'll have to play an exceptional game if we want to win."
On the surface, Beilein could easily be accused of coachspeak -- talking up the opponent on the eve of the big game.
But check out the numbers and you can see his point.
Tech would have received an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament had it not blown a seven-point lead in the final two minutes Feb. 28 at Virginia. It lost that game, 63-62, and was shut out by the NCAA selection committee. The Hokies routed NCAA-bound Xavier, 82-55, and had a 25-7 bulge in offensive rebounds during an 87-76 loss at North Carolina.
They have a burly front line that includes 6-foot-8 junior Travis Jackson, 6-6 junior Shawn Smith and 6-7 sophomore Ace Custis, a first-team Metro player who averages team-highs of 16 points and 10.7 rebounds. Opponents have shot only 40.9 percent against them this season.
"Virginia Tech is not a real big team and we've had success playing people like UNC-Charlotte and Washington State that had a couple of 6-9 big people down in the blocks," Beilein noted. "It usually creates a mismatch for us, but also creates a mismatch for them.
"But Virginia Tech is not that way and it will be very difficult to match up. Fundamentally, they're schooled so well in not turning the ball over (less than 13 per game) and being a good shooting team (47.9 percent)."
After Tech and Canisius meet, Penn State (20-10) battles Marquette (20-11) in the other semifinal. The winners advance to the championship game at 8:30 p.m. Wednesday. A consolation game will played at 6:30 p.m. Wednesday.
While the other three teams in the Final Four were all on the NCAA bubble, Canisius (21-12) had an anxious seven-day wait to hear from the NIT after its MAAC Tournament semifinal loss to St. Peter's on March 5.
"The scenario for us was to wait six to seven days while all our students went on vacation to Daytona Beach," Beilein said. "Our kids had to stick around waiting to see what we were going to be able to do."
Given a second chance, the Griffs have done plenty. There are 302 Division I basketball schools, and the Griffs' wins over Seton Hall, Bradley and Washington State have made Canisius one of the last eight still playing.
"That is incredible," Beilein said.
Specifically, that means the national television spotlight and the chance to play in the Final Four for the first time since 1963.
"I'm not the funniest man in the world but I'll be telling jokes to loosen them up," Beilein said. "I want them to just go out and play and that's really been the emphasis since we got an NIT bid."
Tech coach Bill Foster admits to having similar worries about his players.
"Our guys will be a little bug-eyed and big-eyed," Foster said. "I just hope that's cured by 7 o'clock (tonight)."
A major key could be the Canisius bench, which had a 20-point first half in Thursday's quarterfinal victory over Washington State. Tech uses only six or seven of the nine players left on a roster reduced by injury and attrition.
"We've got a nice club with good chemistry but we just don't dress a lot of people," Foster said. "It should be an interesting matchup."
Beilein hopes Foster's analysis is on target.
"It's an honor to be here," he said. "It's a reward for all the hard work our guys have put in. It should be great."