MIAMI - Donnie Walsh did not crack a smile Tuesday when he said, "I'm assuming Isiah's getting ready for the NCAA Tournament.''

But many of the reporters listening to the Knicks' president laughed out loud, recognizing a tweak of Walsh's predecessor when they heard one.

Surely Walsh, who was responding to reports that Isiah Thomas had a hand in the Carmelo Anthony trade, was well aware Thomas is a long way from the NCAAs.

That was evident here Saturday night, 14 miles across town from the home of LeBron James and the Heat and on the outer fringes of Division I as he wraps up his second season as coach at Florida International.

Actually, it was the best night in a while for Thomas, whose Panthers ended a 1-11 skid with an 83-76 overtime victory over Troy that engaged their fans and concluded their regular season on a positive note, albeit with a dreary 10-18 record, 5-11 in the Sun Belt Conference.

Their only chance at the second NCAA bid in school history - the first resulted in a first-round loss to UCLA in 1995 - is an unlikely run to the conference tournament title next week.

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So was Thomas bothered by what Walsh said? Asked about that after the game, he paused for several seconds:

"I want the Knicks to do well and I always want Jim to do well,'' he said, referring to Garden chairman James Dolan, a longtime friend.

"I'm glad Donnie's doing well. I've always been a fan of his, and he's done a great job.''

That was about all Thomas cared to say about the Knicks. His focus is building something from nothing at FIU, where he is 17-43 in the first two seasons of a five-year contract.


It is a daunting task at the state-supported school of more than 40,000 students, most of whom are commuters, but with plans to grow the residential population in coming years.

Florida International opened in 1972, added basketball in 1981 and moved to Division I in '87. It has not had a winning season since 1999-2000.

As the seniors were introduced before the Troy game, only 100 or so fans were present in the 5,000-seat U.S. Century Bank Arena. A few hundred eventually showed up. The official paid attendance was 1,499, a bit higher than the team averaged this season.

Thomas, 49, said his plan is to continue to plug away on the recruiting trail and "just keep building.'' He said he has enjoyed the "experience of really turning the light on in a kid.''

He is particularly proud that his five seniors are on course to graduate.

"Being able to have a positive impact, change lives, get them to think about truly educating themselves, being men of values and just good people, that's what college is all about,'' he said.

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"It's definitely given me a new life and a new energy.''

The weather doesn't hurt, either.

"Sun shines every day,'' Thomas said, beaming. "I think there really is something to that vitamin D stuff.''

Still, the setting is a far cry from what Thomas experienced in his years as an NBA player, coach and executive, and also at Indiana University, where he won a national championship in 1981.

The Knicks sought to hire him as a consultant before this season, but NBA commissioner David Stern ruled it would be a conflict because of his position at FIU.

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Thomas' name resurfaced recently in reports that he had advised Dolan in his pursuit of Anthony.

During the news conference introducing Anthony on Wednesday, Dolan said that although Thomas is "a very good friend,'' he was not involved in the trade.

"He wasn't advising me or telling me what to do in any way, and any reports that imply that he was doing that are simply untrue and a fiction in somebody's mind,'' Dolan said.

Thomas' perceived involvement with his old team has not gone over well locally.

A Miami Herald columnist blasted Thomas Thursday, urging Florida International to get rid of him and calling him "a moonlighting temp less committed to the program than he would expect a recruit or player to be.''

By the way, the Knicks are in town to face the Heat Sunday night. Does Thomas plan to attend?

"No,'' he said. "I promised my wife we're going on a nice boat ride with some friends.''

The Dolan family owns controlling interests in the Knicks, MSG and Cablevision. Cablevision owns Newsday.