Just midway through its second season of playing Division I ball, the Grand Canyon University men’s basketball team is undefeated in conference play.
OK, so they’re 1-0 after beating Cal State Bakersfield last night in their Western Athletic Conference (WAC) opener. But the 73-65 victory is arguably one of the two most important wins of the season because it supports the general belief within the program and among its supporters that the Antelopes could have a shot at winning the conference this year.
A huge upset victory over the New Mexico Lobos less than three weeks ago was the other important win so far this season. It was a signature win for head coach Dan Majerle that made a defining statement about where his program is headed.
But the win over Bakersfield is almost as significant because it sets the tone for the most important part of the season, conference play.
Any hope for a potential WAC crown this season is based on the fact that Majerle has a deeper, more talented squad than his first season in charge – but also on the fact that the conference is pretty weak this year.
Bakersfield has won just a third of their games this season, but in their first game back from the Christmas break the Roadrunners stunned the California Golden Bears – and on the road in Berkeley. The 55-52 upset of the Pac-12 team, which is 11-5 on the season, was part of a three-game win spurt Bakersfield was putting together to show how much they have improved in the latter stages of the non-conference schedule.
And that improvement was evident last night as Grand Canyon started in the hole for the first few minutes of the game, and then after pulling ahead the ‘Lopes couldn’t seem to shake off the visitors, despite taking an 11-point lead late in the first half before the Roadrunners closed the gap again to 35-32 at the half.
GCU had a brief eight-point lead at one time in the second half, but there was seldom more than two or three buckets separating the two teams all the way down to the final two minutes when it was a one-point game at 61-60. But consistent free-throw shooting and physical play on the boards down the stretch enabled GCU to build the eight-point margin that would close out the win.
DeWayne Russell, the junior transfer from the Northern Arizona program, led the ‘Lopes scoring with a career-best 24 points, while two other players also posted double-digit numbers, Daniel Alexander with 19 and Royce Woolridge with 13 points.
The Antelopes have had trouble all season closing out teams after getting a solid lead. It’s something that Majerle will need to continue working on as his team works its way through conference play.
GCU was picked to finish third in the coaches’ pre-season poll and second in the media poll, so they aren’t going to sneak up on anybody this year. Last year, they exceeded the pre-season predictions with a third-place finish in the WAC after a 15-15 season that included a 10-6 conference mark.
That also earned Majerle a contract extension through the 2017-18 season. The former Phoenix Suns player and assistant coach was hired in March of 2013 to guide the team through a four-year transition period from Division II into Division I; that began with the 2013-14 school year.
One of the most popular players in franchise history during his eight years with the Phoenix Suns, Majerle has brought that fan loyalty and enthusiasm with him to the small Christian school in west Phoenix. While last night’s game wasn’t packed to the rafters like it was when Harvard came in to play a Dec. 30 game, the place was still full and rockin’ with noise and excitement.
Attendance went from an average 2,396 fans the season before Majerle took over to an average of 4,373 last year. The school expanded it’s brand-new arena that was just opened in time for the 2011 season by adding more seats to take the capacity to just over 7,000 fans to be able to handle the increased fan support.
Beating Bakersfield last night started the ‘Lopes on the right track to begin conference play, but the real test will come two more games down the road. They have a three-game road trip ahead that includes a Jan. 22 meeting with New Mexico State, the team picked in both pre-season polls to finish atop the WAC standings.
If they can still say they’re undefeated after that game, then it will really mean something.
(Photo: GCU Athletics/ Darryl Webb)