Rooting for the underdog…hoops hysteria at GCU

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                </div>  Duke played Syracuse in a barn-burner of a basketball game over the weekend that drew 35,446 fans – a Carrier Dome attendance record for the storied Orange program. At […]<!-- AddThis Sharing Buttons below -->
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Duke played Syracuse in a barn-burner of a basketball game over the weekend that drew 35,446 fans – a Carrier Dome attendance record for the storied Orange program.

At the last home game for Grand Canyon University, the Antelopes hosted Seattle University in front of a crowd of 4,987 – also an attendance record for the small west Phoenix college that plays in a 5,000-seat arena.

But the game in New York featured two Hall of Fame coaches and two nationally-ranked opponents.  Duke was No. 17 and Syracuse, which was ranked No. 2 behind University of Arizona, was trying to set a new school record for season starts by winning its 21st consecutive game.  It had all the bells and whistles.

However, the game in Phoenix was between two .500 teams that play in the Western Athletic Conference (WAC). GCU is 11-10 overall and Seattle is 10-10.  Grand Canyon doesn’t have a chance to play in the NCAA Tournament, even if they had the record to warrant earning a berth, because the school is in its first year of transitioning to Division I and, as such, is ineligible.

And yet, the men’s games still draw a full house.  A noisy, rockin’ full house packed with enthusiastic students and fans from throughout the community.

Sports celebrities like former Phoenix Suns owner Jerry Colangelo and NBA greats Charles Barkley, Connie Hawkins, and Ralph Sampson show up for the games.

It’s been that way pretty much since the tip-off of the season-opening exhibition game that kicked off a new era in Grand Canyon men’s basketball.  The GCU Arena, a glistening new 135,000 square-foot structure built in time for the 2011-12 season, provides a first-class venue for the fans.  But that’s not the real draw.

When Dan Majerle took over the program last spring, it brought new excitement to the program.  His name alone sold tickets because he was still relevant, despite the fact that he had retired from the NBA in 2002.  Eight of his 14 years in the pro game were spent in a Phoenix Suns uniform, during which time he became one of the most popular players in franchise history.  He was inducted into the Suns’ Ring of Honor for his contributions to the organization.

But the students who come to watch him on the Anelopes’ sidelines were too young to remember his playing days, so they only know of him by reputation.  They might recognize him from his four years as a broadcast analyst for Suns’ games or the five years he spent on the bench as a Suns’ assistant coach.  His name is also on the handful of sports grills he owns around the state.

While the famous name certainly hasn’t hurt his recruiting efforts, any success he has enjoyed during his first year as a college head coach can be attributed to the fact that his players have bought into the same philosophy he espoused while a player, using team play and a hard-nosed work ethic to compensate for a lack of all-star talent. (Their coach, however, was an NBA All-star.)

Majerle is living with the frustration of not having his own players on the court.  He has managed to scare up some talent in the little time that he has had to begin the process, working diligently since his hire last March.  But he’s still working with somebody else’s players, in this case those recruited by his predecessor, Russ Pennell.

He’s faced with the responsibility of taking a program to a new level, a major feat in itself, and is also resigned to the limitations that come with being unable to offer recruits the opportunity to earn a spot in the NCAA tourney, at least for another three years.

Despite all that, he’s getting the job done with a bunch of over-achieving players that have been scrapping all year for every win they can muster.  And, somehow, they find themselves tied for second place in the conference with a 6-2 record, and are on a four-game winning streak.  They’ve lost just two game since the beginning of January.

And that’s why the fans are turning out in droves to watch this small Christian college play basketball.  They understand what Majerle is doing with this program – and are anxiously waiting to see what he’s going to do when he’s got a team full of his players.

(Photo: GCU Athletics)