The Grand Canyon University men’s basketball team won its first outing of the season Thursday night, an exhibition game against Adams State. But their coach thinks they may have taken the Grizzlies too lightly. Adams State is a Division II program that lost its top five scorers from last season.
The Antelopes should have won by double digits, but just squeezed out a five-point win.
Motivation won’t be a problem in their next game, however. Next Saturday, the Antelopes step into the national spotlight.
The ‘Lopes’ next opponent for their season opener is the 2015 national champion, which is ranked No. 1 in this season’s preseason polls and also features the top-ranked recruiting class in the country.
That would be the Duke Blue Devils, generally regarded as the most talented team in the nation this season and a favorite to win a second straight NCAA championship. That would be the sixth title in program history.
GCU will be participating in the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame 2016 Tip-off Tournament, being hosted by Duke in the historic Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, NC, that drips with tradition and is home to the Cameron Crazies, one of the most vocal student sections in the country.
The invitation to play was one of many benefits the ‘Lopes have enjoyed since Dan Majerle, a former Phoenix Suns player and assistant coach with a high-profile reputation, took over the program four years ago – just after former Phoenix Suns owner Jerry Colangelo signed on to serve as an advisor at the small Christian college in west Phoenix.
Colangelo, a nationally-respected leader in the sport who more recently has been directing the USA Olympic program for men’s basketball, is on board to guide the university through a four-year transition period to move from a Division II program to full D-I status, a schedule that concludes this year. Colangelo’s influence extends throughout all levels of the sport and opens many doors.
“The entire schedule (this year) is challenging,” said Majerle in announcing the 2016-17 schedule over the summer, “but to be able to start at Duke – probably one of the hardest places to play, if not the hardest – will be a great experience for our kids.”
Right now, however, he is undoubtedly more concerned about how that experience will turn out.
The ‘Lopes beat Adams State in the exhibition game, 88-83, but GCU has won its last two exhibition games by an average of 29 points. This one proved to be more of a challenge – but should not have been.
“This was just a bad performance,” Majerle said after the game, frustrated with his team’s lack of focus and intensity. “It is a wake-up call for our guys. We came out flat. I thought we would come out with energy, especially with our amazing crowd and amazing student section.” Since Majerle took over, the GCU Arena has been packed for every game and the excitement level among students has been off the charts.
Against the Grizzlies, GCU had no trouble finding the basket. They shot 52 per cent from the field in the first half and took an 11-point lead into the locker room. But they did have trouble getting focused in the early going. They turned the ball over 13 times and committed 12 fouls in the first half of play.
“We have a lot of work to do…We have to do a better job at bringing the energy and better focus,” admitted redshirt junior guard Josh Braun after the game. Braun, a local product who attended high school at Boulder Creek High in Anthem and Westwind Prep in Phoenix, was a key element in last year’s 27-7 record and deep post-season run. He led the Western Athletic Conference in both 3-point field goal percentage (.417) and free-throw percentage (.873).
This is not the first time GCU has stepped into the rarefied air of top-10 college basketball. Last year the ‘Lopes played Louisville, and the year before they took on Kentucky and Indiana.
They lost to Louisville, 63-111, and lost by 40 points to Kentucky and by 28 to Indiana. Such is the price a lower-tier team pays for the game experience and national exposure. The Lopes’ will get another shot at the Cardinals when Louisville visits GCU Arena on Dec. 3.
But right now, the ‘Lopes have just a week to prepare for an even bigger challenge.
The Crazies await.
(Photo: GCU Athletics)