Coach Dan got his man. BIG man, that is.
In fact, Grand Canyon University head men’s basketball coach Dan Majerle picked up not one, but two, bigs while out on the recruiting trail this off-season. That’s been one of his primary goals since taking over the Antelopes program 15 months ago.
Tobe Okafor and Boubecar Toure stand out from the slate of eight newcomers that will help fill the 2014-15 GCU roster – literally. Both players are 6’11” and, while not considered major offensive threats right now, will give the ‘Lopes a solid presence under the boards and some serious shot-blocking intimidation. Last season, Okafor recorded 66 blocks at Western Texas College, which ranked 27th among all NJCAA Division I players.
Okafor is from Nigeria, but played at the Texas JUCO where he averaged just 4.2 points and five rebounds a game, but shot 55.3 percent from the field. Toure made his way to Phoenix from Daka, Senegal, where he had limited playing experience. But Majerle says “his potential is through the roof” on the defensive end, where he can guard the opposition’s biggest players and block the shots of the smaller players.
Hey, when you’re almost seven feet tall, you’ve got a great head start to developing that potential.
But the entire roster has gotten bigger for next season, which Majerle knew had to be done if his program was to be able to compete at the Division I level. The ‘Lopes just completed their first of four years during which they will transition from the D-II level and become a fully-certified D-I program.
They joined the Western Athletic Conference (WAC) for the 2013-14 school year and finished the season in third place with a 10-6 conference mark and 15-15 overall record to exceed pre-season expectations.
In addition to a pair of twin towers, the incoming class includes 6’9″ power forward Kerwin Smith from Dallas and a couple of big boys from Australia, 6’8″ forward Matt Jackson and 6’6″ shooting guard Gerard Martin. The smallest of the group, De’Andre Davis, is a 6’1 guard from Texas who rounds out the freshman contingency.
And this year the program will have more of a ‘family feel’ as the coach’s nephew, Ryan Majerle, joins the roster as a redshirt junior after transferring in from Majerle’s home state of Michigan.
Ryan won’t have to count on a family connection to earn any playing time at GCU; he’ll likely pay his way from behind the arc. After averaging 23.5 points as a senior at Rockford High School, he became a scoring threat at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, where he lead the team last season in made three-pointers and three-point percentage, which was second in the conference.
But a good share of the attention next season will undoubtedly be directed at a couple of local products that round out the list of incoming recruits and add both talent and D-I experience to the line-up. Both attended Phoenix-area high schools, but took the long way around to get to GCU.
DeWayne Russell played his freshman year at Northern Arizona University, where he averaged 14.4 points and 3.2 assists and was one of the top scorers in the Big Sky Conference. He’s had a rather bumpy start to his college career, first committing and then de-committing to the USC program, and then deciding to leave NAU just days before the 2013-14 season started.
Majerle was one of a handful of coaches that were willing to take a chance on the under-sized 5’10’ guard who had a dozen or so scholarship offers from other D-I schools. Based on NCAA transfer rules, he will be eligible to play for the ‘Lopes in December.
It will be Royce Woolridge, however, who could make the biggest impact next season, which will be his last year of college eligibility. The Sunnyslope High School graduate, the son of former NBA stand-out Orlando Woolridge, brings with him a ton of experience after playing a year at Kansas and then two more at Washington State. And that will be most welcome on a roster loaded with inexperienced freshmen.
Woolridge, who averaged 29 points in his senior season at Sunnyslope and was the Arizona Republic’s Big Schools Player of the Year, didn’t see a lot of playing time at Kansas, where he appeared in just 16 games as a freshman and averaged fewer than three minutes a game. But that changed after sitting out a season following his transfer to Washington State. He played in 32 games as a redshirt sophomore with the Cougars and in 31 games last season, he averaged 7.3 points a game, led the team in assists with 84, and was second in steals with 24.
Actually, there could be a lot of familiar faces on the floor in GCU Arena this season. In addition to Russell and Woolridge, Jerome Garrison returns for his senior season and could be paired with Woolridge to provide an experienced senior back court. The 6’3″ Garrison, from Mountain Pointe High School in Phoenix, started 22 games last year and scored in double digits 10 times.
After putting an exciting product on the floor last season that caught on with fans, increasing attendance at games 83 percent over the previous season, the school gave its new head coach a contract extension that will take Majerle through the 2017-18 season.
The timing is appropriate. By the time this group of youngsters becomes battle-tested seniors, GCU will be through its four-year transition period and ready to compete as a full-fledged D-I program. Majerle says he wants to be at the small Christian school for a long time, and has big plans once it can begin competing in the NCAA post-season.
“I have a long-term plan here to make this a top-20 program in the country,” the former Phoenix Suns player and coach said when given the contract extension. “We had a great season this year and I’m very fortunate to have the support of the president and the entire university to make our goals for the program a reality.”
But Majerle isn’t waiting to begin bulking up for that first season as a full-fledged D-I program. He’s already found his big men – and he knows how to use them.
And that’s something the other WAC coaches will have to learn to deal with.
(Photo: GCU Athletics)