Photo credit: Grand Canyon athletics
Nestled deep in the heart of the American Southwest lays a team that is capable of busting brackets. This team is in Arizona, and when the Grand Canyon State is mentioned, most think of Arizona or Arizona State.
Both of the big schools in the state have established basketball programs, but oddly enough, neither of them are considered among the most exciting teams in the state. Grand Canyon University’s men’s basketball team has gone from unknown to unmistakable in the past decade of play.
Beginning in 2013, the Antelopes made the move from Division II to Division I. They had to endure a four-year postseason prohibition due to NCAA policies. Once the prohibition ended, the Lopes hit the ground running, rising in the standings every year.
The question is banked: how does a school with 90,000 of its 115,000 students enrolled in their online programs and virtual degrees have such a dominating basketball team? It, in theory, makes no sense for a school where its main attraction is online business programs to have even a remotely decent basketball team.
Yet, Grand Canyon has defied this narrative. Competing in the Western Athletic Conference (WAC), the Lopes have transformed their program, from one of historic domination at the Division II and NAIA level, to one of a speedy rebuild at the Division I level.
GCU History and Previous Seasons
The Lopes entered the WAC in 2013, and were forced to sit out four straight NCAA Tournaments before being eligible to enter. This situation is similar to a player when they transfer, being ineligible to play for a year. While they were on the sidelines, former coach Dan Majerie created his plan.
A former NBA player himself, he knew that European players were the key to succeeding. He went out to Europe to scout underrated and seemingly unwanted players. Using his name value, he got many players from different countries.
These countries included Italy, Denmark, and Ukraine. Additionally, he got players from Canada. These players all bought in. After a surprising 2015-16 season, more American talent began to flock to Phoenix.
It began to come to fruition for Majerie, who guided the team from its inaugural Division I game. Going into the 2019-20 season, hopes were high, and the Lopes were coming off a fourth straight 20-win season, having finished no lower than third in the conference over that span.
Then came disappointment. When COVID-19 hit, the Lopes’ record was 15-17. The season, as many know by now, was canceled, leaving a sour taste in the mouths of players and coaches alike. As the season ended, Majerie was let go.
In came Bryce Drew, the former college star.
Drew comes from a basketball family, with his father being the former Valparaso head coach, Homer, and his brother being the current Baylor head coach, Scott. Bryce is most known for his buzzer beater in the 1998 NCAA Tournament.
He spent a few seasons in the NBA, and came back to the college ranks to coach. He succeeded his father at Valpo, and went on to be the head man for Vanderbilt.
The Master Plan
Drew arrived in Phoenix with his own version of a master plan. He intended to recruit every single player possible. From his time at Vanderbilt, he seemed to have something of a shooter’s touch when it came to recruiting.
He signed two future lottery picks in Darius Garland and Aaron Nesmith. Unfortunately for Drew, that never translated to success, as the Commodores were winless in conference play in 2018-19.
To truly demonstrate the recruiting prominence; take freshman guard Jayden Stone for example. He was born in Australia, but moved to the United States when he was younger. He had received offers from schools like Auburn, Baylor, and Michigan State, but chose to play for Drew.
Coach Drew has that type of skill in recruiting. He has begun to amass his riches in terms of recruits, but it became time for those talented recruits to translate into wins for Drew. The have gotten out to a 4-1 start this season, as of Dec. 18. The only loss was against No. 23 Arizona State at the buzzer.
There is no such success for Grand Canyon without the help of “The Havocs”. The Havocs are one of America’s rowdiest crowds and most passionate fans in the country. Ever since Grand Canyon moved into GCU Arena in 2013, The Havocs have become one of the loudest in the nation.
As far as mid-majors go, they are the cream of the crop. They are 3,000 students strong. The Havocs make it their mission to get into the heads of the opposition and give the Lopes an advantage. Every home game has an average of 102% attendance, or over 7,000 attendees. That is the highest mark of all of the mid-majors in the country.
Aside from the sheer size of The Havocs, they provide a massive boost to the Lopes whenever they host an opponent. Known as “The Biggest Party in College Basketball”, The Havocs make sure that the experience is anything but fun for their opposition. They have hosted some big-time opponents, and back in 2016, Louisville was one of them.
Former Louisville coach Rick Pitino called The Havocs “(u)nreal and one of the most energetic crowds I have ever seen”. With their flags, cardboard cutouts, and insane energy, The Havocs can truly change the game. Ignoring the fact that they are a mid-major, they are the No. 22 overall student section in the country. Considering they have one of the smallest arenas in the top 25 of this list, that is a massive achievement.
Grand Canyon has hit the ground running in the early portion of the season. Its lone loss was to the previously mentioned Arizona State Sun Devils. The team has balance, and yes, international talent.
The Lopes are led by 6-foot-10 center, Alessandro Lever, who has averaged 17.4 points through five games. Sophomore guard Jovan Blacksher Jr. has been a solid second second option, averaging 14 points with a slash line of 46.4/36.8/84.6.
The future is coming sooner than expected for the Lopes. Blacksher looks like their future first option, and this year, he has taken a big step forward. Asbjorn Midtgaard, senior center from Denmark, is leading the team in rebounds.
The Lopes play a very rare style for a college team. They play two centers who are 6-10, and 7-0 in Lever and Midtgaard, respectively. Additionally, they play with a lot of depth, with eight players averaging over 10 minutes per game. Many teams only play a core of about seven players, but Drew has his guys operating like a hockey team, with frequent line changes. This flexibility allows Drew to adjust to anything opposing coaches throw his way.
Why this year, though? Considering the Lopes are without the full extent of their student section, there is a decent claim that they really have no business being discussed this much. The biggest factor that is in their favor is the conference they play in and their non-conference schedule.
The WAC is a relatively weak conference, and while there are good teams, it isn’t ridiculous to think that Grand Canyon can escape with an automatic bid. Additionally, it has played major Division I teams, and shown that this team is up to the task. Finally, let’s not ignore the fact that they play with two centers who can and will give many teams trouble.
The “European Twin Towers” are an automatic mismatch inside, and are tough for many teams to guard. That’s especially true in modern game with so many teams opting to play small-ball. Traditional centers are becoming a commodity, and Grand Canyon employs two of them on a regular basis.
The Antelopes have literally built this program from nothing. Drew has shown he is a masterful recruiter. The only thing left for them to prove is that they are legit.
With their hot start, it is reasonable to assume that they are up to the task. No one who has watched their ascension to legitimacy will be surprised if they become this season’s Cinderella. Even if they are unable to make their mark in the tourney, the future looks very bright deep in the American Southwest for the Grand Canyon University Antelopes.