Sun Devils set to help GCU christen new basketball arena

Tonight’s exhibition game with Grand Canyon University is going to give the Arizona State basketball team a chance to hone its mental game before the regular season even starts.

The Sun Devils will encounter a loud, enthusiastic crowd on the road tonight as a packed house of GCU students and fans turn out to watch the match-up between their small Division II school and a Pac-12 team that enjoys the national spotlight.

ASU requested an NCAA waiver to be able to play at GCU, rather than in Tempe, which would normally be the case when a D-I plays a D-II school.  But this was a special occasion, since ASU head coach Herb Sendek wanted to be able to help the west Phoenix college christen its new basketball arena.

(*Update:  The ‘Lopes held on through the first half, down just 37-31 at the break.  But ASU poured it on the second half to pull away to a 89-69 win.  The sellout crowd was announced as 4,702.)

Russ Pennell, the third-year GCU head coach, had a little pull in setting up the game.  He is not only a friend of Sendek, but was a former assistant coach at ASU during the Rob Evans reign.  He was also the interim head coach when Lute Olsen left the University of Arizona program, but held the post just a year before being hired by GCU to begin building a program that could, within a few years, compete at the D-I level.

The new arena, which will be used for other events such as concerts and conferences, is part of the plan to move up and compete in NCAA Division I.

It seats just 4,602 for basketball games.  But every one of those seats will be filled tonight following the sold-out ticket sales well before game time.

Hey, this is a big deal for a school that last year averaged fewer than 1,200 fans each game.

But Grand Canyon proved it can play with the big boys earlier in the week when it opened with an exhibition game against another Pac-12 school.  The Antelopes led Oregon by as many as nine points in the first half and were tied 43-43 when the half ended.  They lost by seven.

The ‘Lopes went 14-12 last season, finishing in fourth place in the Pacific West Conference.

They will be led by senior point guard, Kyle Speed, who averaged 10 points a game last year, but was ranked fourth in the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio at 3.37.  He’ll be joined by 6’6″ junior guard from Corona del Sol High School, Brad Carroll, the third-leading scorer on last year’s squad with 9.2 points per game.

GCU also has four freshmen on this year’s roster, including Jerome Garrison, a 6’3″ guard from Mountain Pointe High School in Phoenix, and Micah Fetters, a redshirt guard from Hamilton High School in Chandler.

ASU will be looking for its leadership from a ‘6’5″ wing from Minnesota named Trent Lockett, who averaged 13.4 points per game last season and was named to the All Pac-10 second team.  All of the top eight scorers from the 2010 team are gone.

Lockett will be joined by four other returning All-Pac 10 players: Jorge Gutierrez, Reeves Nelson, Jared Cunningham, and Harper Kamp.

With a brand new court, a sold-out house, and a Pac-12 opponent to showcase the opening of your new home, the stage is set for a memorable evening for the ‘Lopes and their fans.

The only thing that could have made this game more interesting would have been seeing the debut of ASU’s highly-touted freshman, Jahii Carson. The four-star recruit, who was ranked No. 10 nationally among guard prospects, played at Mesa High School and is a local favorite.  He is still waiting for his eligibility to be cleared by the NCAA.

But, with our without Carson, the house is gonna rock tonight.

(Photo: Grand Canyon University)