GCU shows fearless, big-time toughness at Kentucky
Story by Rick Vacek
Photos by Darryl Webb
GCU Today Magazine
LEXINGTON, Ky. — IT IS two days before one of the most high-profile events in the history of Grand Canyon University, a basketball game against a Kentucky team considered so good, one opposing coach says the Wildcats could make the NBA playoffs. But any sign of nerves isn’t evident as the Antelopes, like kids in a very big, very famous candy store, snap photos of legendary Rupp Arena and talk about what it will be like to play before more than 23,000 people in a place that has hosted the NCAA Final Four.
“It’s pretty easy when there’s nobody in here,” says coach Dan Majerle, who himself has never been to Rupp and is taken by how much it reminds him of old Chicago Stadium with its birthday-cake layers of seats reaching to the rafters.
Majerle is realistic about his team’s mission. Playing an opponent so monstrous is like taking the final exam at the start of class, with no time to study. For GCU to even be here at all was unimaginable less than two years earlier, when the Division II Lopes traveled to gyms smaller than those of decent-size middle schools. They have traded games against the likes of Academy of Art and Holy Names for a season opener at the home of one of the holiest names in the sport, and the reception from the massive Rupp crowd will be every bit as chilly as the unseasonably cold weather that has greeted them.
“I have no preconceived notions that we’re going to come out here and beat these guys, to be honest with you —the No. 1-ranked team, we’re not ready for that yet,” Majerle says. “I want our guys to compete. I want us to play hard for 40 minutes. I want us to show no fear. And then whatever happens, happens and we move on.
“This game is more about the future. Not being able to play in the NCAA tournament for three more years, when we are able to schedule teams like this, Indiana, Harvard and New Mexico, it does a lot for recruiting. It shows kids we’re going to play the best competition out there, and this is where we eventually want to be — we want to be a Top 25 program. To do that we have to act like one, we’ve got to walk like one, we’ve got to feel like one, we’ve got to know how they do it. So this is just part of that whole process of what we want to become.”
The process has brought 11 fresh faces to the GCU roster to go with holdover starters Daniel Alexander and Jerome Garrison. This is virtually a new team for this new dream, and it’s going to take time to get to know each other on the court.
But off the court is another matter, and a summer spent on campus doing conditioning also included a series of impromptu bonding activities, from dinners to movies to just hanging out.
“That’s one of the things that I would hold as most important and close to my heart regarding this team, is just the community that we’ve built,” Alexander says. “I know it sounds like a cliché, but it’s become somewhat of a family. I can hang out with any of these guys, at one point we’ve all slept on each other’s couch, and on the weekend when a new movie comes out we just pile in cars and go check it out together. It’s really a cool thing. I’ve been close with the teams I’ve been on in the past, but this is the widest variety of people I’ve been able to do that with.”
Says Garrison, “We have a lot of really humble guys, a lot of guys who just like being good people. I mean, they’re great guys on campus, you see them everywhere and they just care. That’s something that Grand Canyon has always been about, giving back to the community and being about togetherness, and it’s just cool to see that through our team. That’s what it’s really all about, at the end of the day, is to build these relationships. It’s cool with the games, but it’s really all about the relationships.”
Right now, though, it’s all about the fun. Even Majerle joins in, standing next to his 12-year-old son, Max, who’s along on his first road trip, and hoisting 3-pointers. Max, a chip off the old block if there ever was one, has a nice left-handed touch, but his dad still is a tough out in H-O-R-S-E, as another newcomer to the team, his nephew Ryan Majerle, will attest. “The Majerles, we’re shooters, man,” he says.
The mood is relaxed, maybe because they need to unwind before they start preparing in earnest for what lies ahead.
“Coach Majerle allows us to have fun. You can actually talk to him. He’s been in the same position we’re in,” says Royce Woolridge, the Phoenix native who played at Kansas and Washington State and then transferred to GCU for his final year of eligibility.
But even amid the joviality, there’s a business sense to why the Lopes are here. “We’re trying to set a tone for how Coach Majerle wants these teams to be, which is tough, aggressive, hard-nosed teams, and we’re not going to back down to anybody,” Garrison says.
Those words will prove prophetic two days later.
IT IS the day before one of the most high-profile events in GCU history, and longtime coach Larry Brown of SMU makes news when he says that not only should Kentucky’s top five players be ranked No. 1, its next five should be ranked No. 2. The Wildcats “should go 45-0 with that talent,” Brown says.
Appropriate to the task at hand, the Lopes’ practice is spirited and intense. Majerle and associate head coach Todd Lee constantly remind them that soft passes will be intercepted and weak drives to the basket will be rejected by the taller, quicker Wildcats.
Three of the players on the court have come a long way — two of them literally, one figuratively — to play at GCU. Most notable is Matt Jackson, a 6-foot-8 forward from Melbourne, Australia, who has so impressed Majerle with his basketball IQ that he has cracked the starting five in his first season. The soft-spoken Jackson is a classic role player who says, “I’ve always prided myself on doing the right thing for the team,” but he admits he’s having a hard time envisioning what role the Rupp crowd will play the next night.
“All I can think of is when we played our first home game last week,” he says of the exhibition against Western New Mexico. “That was just amazing, almost overwhelming, the noise. So I’m trying to picture that but just on a larger scale with everyone rooting against us.”
His fellow Aussie, guard Sam Daly, got in 13 games last season and started 11 of them. Now he’s a backup but is happy to be able to contribute.
“I love it here,” Daly says. “I think I’m in a program where I’m going to get better as a player and as a team player. It’s a tough environment, but I think that’s what I needed at this point in my little basketball career. GCU and college in particular is a different style. Tremendous athletes, which we don’t see a whole lot of back home. It’s quick and it’s up pace.”
Guard Joshua Braun is from right up the road from GCU in Anthem, but his journey has been even longer in a physical sense. The redshirt freshman has overcome four knee surgeries, and he can’t even remember the last time he played in an organized game before the exhibition. But his faith has saved him.
“I’m thankful for it all,” he says. “You’ve got to look at the positives, the bright side of it, and I really believe God has really grown me through all this. I wouldn’t be where I am as a person or as a player without it all. … The first game was a blast, and right now it’s just a matter of slowing it down and praising Him for this opportunity to play again.”
Toward the end of practice, Max Majerle — who has taken about 5,000 shots the last two days — swishes two from nearly half-court, and his dad can’t help but notice. “He’s living the life,” he says.
So are Majerle’s players, who seem to be getting more comfortable in the cavernous arena all the time. “We’ve got nothing to lose,” Daly says.
IT IS the day of one of the most high-profile events in GCU history, and the Lexington Herald-Leader’s preview doesn’t even mention until well down in the story that tonight’s game is against Grand Canyon. That the Lopes even got on the radar of Kentucky coach John Calipari is yet another example of the influence of GCU special adviser Jerry Colangelo, who as director of USA Basketball hired Calipari as his team’s coach for the 2015 Pan American Games. On the bus ride to the arena, Alexander and Braun are among a handful of players discussing their favorite Bible verses.
“We’re trying to make it where it’s a constant thing and not just when we’re about to play a game,” Alexander says. “I think it’s a consistency of reminding yourself to rely on God regardless of the outcome.” In the stands behind the Lopes’ bench, GCU President/CEO Brian Mueller looks like a proud papa as he surveys the scene.
“We came to Grand Canyon University six years ago, so for us to be here in six years is unbelievable. It’s truly remarkable,” he says. “It’s the result of the hard work of thousands of people, everybody who runs our online program, all the people who come to work every day and work so hard in our traditional central ground campus, and then, of course, you put the right pieces in place with Mr. Colangelo and Coach Majerle.”
The anticipation builds as the Lopes warm up and the stands fill. With the opening tipoff less than 45 minutes away, Majerle and Lee bring the team back in the locker room for one last rundown of what to expect on offense and defense, and at the end they go around the room and ask individual players to give a scouting report on each Kentucky player’s tendencies, based on the film the Lopes have studied. Every single player rips off a long list of items, without hesitation.
“You guys are ready,” Majerle tells them. “I really believe that. Just play your game. Let’s do what we do.”
But Kentucky does what it does right from the start, and the Lopes can’t get a shot to drop or, in some cases, over the much taller UK defenders. In the first half, the Wildcats block seven shots, one more than the Lopes make. But the expectedly epic blowout never really materializes, and the crowd never really gets that loud.
“It feels more like an NBA game than a college game,” says Daren Sweet, GCU Class of 1992, who sits in Section 231, Row H. “The atmosphere here is OK, but I’ll take what we have at GCU any day.” The opening jitters behind them, the Lopes outscore Kentucky over the first 13 minutes of the second half, and it’s a 25-point game until the Wildcats pull away in the final minutes for an 85-45 victory. Afterward, Calipari praises GCU for its physicality and says, “You could tell they’re not afraid.”
Majerle, too, praises his team for its effort and perseverance. “It was good for our guys to see exactly how a No. 1 team plays and acts and feels like, the physicality of the game. It was really a good test for us,” he says.
Says Alexander, “There just wasn’t an aspect of fear. Coach Majerle spoke about that before the game, that a regret that you can have in life is if you went into a situation timid or with fear and without the confidence that you can compete and play, regardless of the outcome.”
The Lopes have eight home games in December, including ones against New Mexico and Harvard, and one of their road trips is to another mecca of college basketball — Indiana. But not a single game the rest of the season will be as daunting as what they faced at Kentucky, which proved they have nothing to fear.
Contact Rick Vacek at 602-639-8203 or [email protected]