The Battle of the Bruised Egos. That would have been an apt description of last night’s men’s basketball game between Grand Canyon University and Montana State.
Both coaches knew their teams were going to start this season in the hole, which happened last week when they were each hugely overmatched in their season openers. But it’s still a psychological let-down for the players.
GCU opened its season last week on the road against the No. 1 team in the country, the Kentucky Wildcats, and got thumped, 45-85. Montana State drew another of the sport’s elite programs, the UCLA Bruins. The Bobcats scored 78 points on the Bruins, but still lost that one by 35.
That’s the price that teams like Grand Canyon, which plays in the Western Athletic Conference, and Montana State, a member of the Big Sky Conference, must pay for the national exposure they generate by playing the nation’s best. That price can be pretty humbling.
But GCU head coach Dan Majerle has to be feeling a lot better after the 61-45 win last night as his team settled back into the comfort of their own home in front of an enthusiastic base of fans that have been energized with the hire of Majerle, a popular former Phoenix Suns player and assistant coach. Majerle took over the job last season and inherited the daunting task of taking the program through a four-year transition period from Division II to D-I.
His impact on the program was easy to recognize. Attendance at home games increased dramatically during his first season, jumping from an average of 2,396 during the 2012-13 season to 4,614 last year – almost double in just one season.
The first home game of the new season continued the pattern of sell-outs that welcomed the team all last year, as 6,527 fans packed into the newly-expanded GCU Arena last night. Approximately 2,000 more seats were added for this season to a gym that was already loud and raucous.
The competition level was definitely more to Majerle’s liking, and it was obvious the game against Kentucky had prepared them well for the rest of the season. The 45 points the ‘Lopes allowed against the Bobcats is the second-fewest in any game since Majerle took over.
And the defense, which had to contend with a bigger, faster NBA-calibre team in Rupp Arena, brought the intensity the Kentucky game required to last night’s encounter with a lesser foe. An aggressive, disciplined GCU defense held the visitors to 34.9 per cent shooting from the field and forced 22 turnovers.
The offense brought its own form of energy, racking up a double-digit lead on 50 percent shooting before coasting into halftime with a 28-18 lead, and then coming out firing in the second half to go on a 12-4 run that helped ruin any thoughts of a Bobcat comeback.
This team might also be deeper in scoring than the one that posted a 15-15 record in Majerle’s first year; the bench accounted for 27 points last night. In fact, the team’s leading scorer against the Bobcats is a reserve guard named Ryan Majerle. The coach’s nephew joined the team last year after spending a season playing for Toledo and another for Grand Valley State University in Michigan, where he led the team in three-point shooting, but red-shirted last season.
Majerle The Younger scored 13 points last night on 55 percent shooting, while two of his teammates also scored in double figures. Royce Woolridge, a senior guard from Sunnyslope High School, finished with 11 points, and 6’9″ forward Daniel Alexander added 10 to the pot.
There is at least one area, however, that can use some cleaning up before the ‘Lopes take on UT-Arlington Thursday night. Although they picked up 26 points in the paint, four more than MSU, they were out-rebounded by a smaller team, 34-30.
Three more home games lie directly ahead, which should give the ‘Lopes a welcome stretch during which time they can continue to build team chemistry and work in the new players before hitting the road again, back into hostile territory.
Another big test arrives in less than four weeks. GCU travels to Bloomington, Ind., for a Dec. 13 game against the Hoosiers in fabled Assembly Hall.
So how tough could that be? After all, they’ve already played the No. 1 team in the country.
(Photo: GCU Athletics)