Young GCU basketball teams are coming of age
Story by Rick Vacek
Photos by Darryl Webb
GCU News Bureau
The Big Ten Conference’s “year of readiness” proposal to make freshmen ineligible in some NCAA sports would have left a lot of basketball teams in the Western Athletic Conference short-handed this season — including both the men and women at Grand Canyon University.
Freshmen have gotten at least one-third of the playing time on seven of the 16 WAC teams. GCU has two entries in that group: The GCU men rank fourth in the conference in percentage of minutes devoted to freshmen (33.8 percent), and the women are second at 37.6 percent behind only Kansas City (a whopping 50.8 percent).
Those freshmen aren’t just playing a lot — they’re contributing, too. GCU’s Joshua Braun is 13th in the WAC in overall scoring at 11.7 points per game, trailing only one other freshman, New Mexico State’s Pascal Siakam (seventh, 13.5). Five of the WAC’s top 20 scorers among the women are freshmen, including GCU’s Jessica Gajewski (12th, 10.8) and Casey Rarrick (16th, 9.9).
But the story of the 2014-15 basketball season at GCU, which continues tonight as the men play at Chicago State and the women play at home against the same university, goes beyond the fact that coaches Dan Majerle and Trent May have been forced to rely on freshmen.
Their rosters are filled with players new to their programs, and in basketball that translates into extra time needed to learn to play alongside each other. Yet the GCU men go into tonight in second place in the WAC and have a chance to win 19 games, an important step up from their 15-15 first year in Division I. And although the women are 11-13 they have steadily improved and came within two seconds of knocking off first-place New Mexico State on its home court Saturday.
Majerle has sent a freshman out to center court for the pregame introductions 51 times, which leads the WAC by a wide margin. He praised the play of Braun, who first became a starter in the seventh game of the season, Dec. 2 at Illinois-Chicago, after scoring 21 points in the previous game at Central Michigan. He has had five 20-point games since.
It could be argued that no freshman in the conference has been asked to do more than Braun, who has had to play power forward in GCU’s four-guard lineup even though he’s just 6-foot-4 and 195 pounds — at least three inches and 40 pounds light for the position — and is playing competitive basketball for the first time in 2 ½ years after recovering from multiple knee surgeries. Still, the redshirt freshman has thrived, largely because of his attitude.
“I enjoy the battle,” he said. “I enjoy the opportunity to take on a guy bigger than me. Size isn’t always going to matter. It’s how hard you play.”
His toughest assignment thus far this season was guarding New Mexico State’s Tshilidzi Nephawe, who’s 6-10 and weighs 268 pounds. “His calves are about the size of my thighs,” Braun said.
But last week, Braun showed the size of his heart in what might have been the most eye-catching play of the year in the WAC: He got a rebound against Texas-Pan American in the final seconds even though he was shooting a free throw and four UTPA players were stationed between him and the basket while the rest of his teammates were back on defense. Longtime basketball watchers could never recall seeing that before.
“Christ’s empowerment is a beautiful thing because I have no idea how that happened,” Braun said.
Majerle is the first to acknowledge that he’s asking a lot of his freshmen. Kerwin Smith has started one more game than Braun (23 to 22), and another true freshman, De’Andre Davis, has steadily gotten more playing time as his confidence and production have increased.
“It’s tough,” Majerle said of using Smith as much as he has. “We were going to redshirt him, but because of necessity he’s got to play. It’s not really fair to him, but I think he’s gotten better. He’s starting to learn, but he’s got a long way to go. He’s got to spend the summer in the weight room and get stronger and develop his moves a little better.”
Davis had two electric moments recently — a rebound basket at Seattle on which he soared over a defender and a run of eight straight points against UTPA that turned the game around. “I started off pretty slow, but I’m picking it up,” he said.
Majerle’s assessment: “De’Andre has really improved, probably, the most (of the freshmen). He’s learned how to work, which all freshmen have to do. He practices how he plays. He started stringing really good practices together and then started playing better. He’d come back and practice just as hard, and that develops trust for me.”
Majerle said he coaches freshmen harder than other players because he wants them to realize how difficult the transition to college ball is. “They don’t know what they don’t know. They want to take plays off. They’ve got excuses. In high school, they’re always bigger, stronger, better than anybody else, and that’s not the way it is here. So I coach them real hard and find out quick — good players want to be coached, bad players don’t want to be coached.”
May, whose GCU teams won at least 19 games in six of his first seven seasons, echoed that thought when he talked about his approach to his young team.
“At first I really wanted to be more patient,” he said. “But when you go to the (scorer’s) table to check into the game, they don’t ask to see your ID. What’s more important is the buy-in. Do you have the maturity to have the buy-in?”
Gajewski and Rarrick, both outstanding shooters, have bought in after overcoming injuries that have limited them at times this season, and May has seen their confidence grow in more than just their jump shot.
“If you watch somebody walk into a gym and they can’t shoot at all, you can coach them, but if there’s nothing demonstrated, how can you give confidence?” May said. “Long story short, we’ve seen tremendous confidence in them.
“We can tell them, ‘Hey, you can shoot the ball. You guys can play the game — there’s no question about that.’ But now we can reassure them that they’ve demonstrated confidence in themselves and their abilities.”
Rarrick’s big turnaround game was Jan. 29, when she scored 22 points to help the Lopes defeat Kansas City. “I had a really bad shootaround, and I was kind of like, mentally, I don’t know if this is going to work out,” she said. “But then I got into the game and hit a shot or two and I was like, ‘OK, I can do this.’” She has had three 20-point games since.
Gajewski had never been out of her native Australia before coming to GCU a little more than a year ago, and she said it took her awhile to feel comfortable with the transition. But now that she has acclimated to the different culture and climate, she’s amazed, not dazed.
“It’s unbelievable, really,” she said. “I’m doing stuff that I never would have done before. I never used to drive to the basket, but I will sometimes now. My defense is better. I used to be terrible at defense. Now I’m not as bad.”
In Australia, she said, “We didn’t really do as much practice. And weights — I never really lifted before, and now I’m doing it a lot. I’m definitely stronger, but I need a lot more work.”
Having all these young players get so many minutes presents some challenges for the players as well as the coaches. All five freshmen talked about how difficult the transition can seem at times, but Braun might have had the best advice for any of them when he said, “Just learn and do what the coaches ask of you because they know what they’re doing.”
In other words, just be ready. Because unless the Big Ten talks the rest of the NCAA universities into making freshmen ineligible for the first time since 1972, youth will be served.
Contact Rick Vacek at 602-639-8203 or [email protected]