Reinert Toft

Friday, July 28, 2017

GCU’s profile continues to rise with doubleheader invite

PHOENIX — The last time a college basketball doubleheader landed in downtown Phoenix, Talking Stick Resort Arena was still U.S. Airways, the Suns were a perennial power in the Western Conference, and a duo of games was played featuring Arizona vs. Illinois and Gonzaga against the Kevin Durant-led Texas Longhorns.

Nearly 11 years later, another will come to town that includes the Wildcats again plus Grand Canyon, who moves to Division I play this season, another symbol of the rising profile of the the basketball program and the university overall. BD Global’s Valley of the Sun Shootout will pair Arizona with Texas A&M and the Antelopes with St. John’s on Dec. 5 at Talking Stick Resort Arena.

Although this doubleheader is nothing extraordinary for Sean Miller’s Arizona squad, it is another opportunity for the Antelopes under Dan Majerle to shine in the spotlight.

What is even more special about this year for GCU is that it will be eligible for the NCAA Tournament.

“We’ve played some great teams and all of that is to prepare for what we are going to do this year,” Majerle said.

Arizona coach Sean Miller (center) and Grand Canyon coach Dan Majerle (left) answer questions about the Valley of the Sun Shootout that will take place at Talk Stick Resort Arena on December 5, 2017. (Photo by Reinert Toft/Cronkite News)

Although playing against St. John’s, a team that amassed a 22-43 record in its last two seasons, does not scream top competition, it is what GCU needs to make a name for itself in college basketball.

Their participation in the tournament reflect the meteoric rise of Antelope basketball that has come in tandem with the rise of the school itself. On-campus enrollment is expected to surpass 19,000 in the fall with total enrollment, including online classes, estimated at 82,000. Just nine years ago, that figure was approximately 22,000.

In the early 2000s, the still small private school was under the threat of bankruptcy. Basketball was also struggling at the time. From 2000-2004, GCU accumulated a 31-76 record.

But a $150 million renovation project the same year Arizona played Illinois helped turned the school around. It was around this time, too, that GCU basketball joined the Division II Pacific West Conference after being an independent the previous two seasons.

Three years later, GCU began work on a $60 million campus expansion project. In the four seasons between the project and the hiring of “Thunder” Dan Majerle, GCU went 72-44.

Since the hiring of Majerle and the move to Division I and the Western Athletic Conference in 2013, the Lopes have amassed a 59-37 record. The basketball program is often used heavily in marketing campaigns.

“When we first got there, we sat about 5,000 seats and after a season they took the roof off, literally took the roof off the building and added another 2,000 seats. Now it’s 7,500,” Majerle said.

During the past three seasons, GCU has competed against upper-tier college basketball programs including San Diego State, St. Mary’s, Indiana, Louisville, Arizona, Kentucky and Duke.

It is 2-7 against those teams, with both wins against San Diego State.

Arizona State basketball fans can lay their hat on the curtain of distraction, but the student fan base at GCU — the Havocs — are starting to gain recognition.

“I watched them play against Louisville at home. The atmosphere that he described, it’s amazing,” Miller said.

Miller said he expects the combined attendance of Arizona and Grand Canyon fans in early December to feel like first- and second-round NCAA tournament games.

“Any time you can have your teams getting that type of experience in the month of December, you think back to those opportunities when you are there in March because that is what we’re doing it for,” Miller said.

A trip to the tournament for GCU will be difficult. The Western Athletic Conference only secures one spot in the tournament and that spot that been monopolized by New Mexico State University.

An appearance in March could help GCU’s enrollment continue to rise.

According to a Bloomberg report in March, double-digit seeded schools that make the tournament and do well see a boost in enrollment applications.

The best examples are VCU’s 2011 run to the Final Four, Wichita State’s 2013 run to the Final Four and Florida Gulf Coast’s run to the Sweet 16 that same year.

Highlighting GCU’s offseason was the signing of Valley native Casey Benson, who most recently played at Oregon.

Majerle is confident that if his team can stay healthy, it will be the best one he has had in years. A strong effort in the Valley of the Sun Shootout would suggest he’s right.

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