Grand Canyon Antelopes Look to Make Strides in the WAC

Out west, the Mountain West and West Coast conferences dominate whatever media exposure is available. More specifically, the Gonzaga Bulldogs and sometimes the San Diego State Aztecs get the most attention. However, the Grand Canyon Antelopes from the Western Athletic Conference are causing a stir in the region. Grand Canyon beat the Nevada Wolf Pack, took the Arizona State Sun Devils to the wire, and have a matchup against the San Francisco Dons fast approaching.

The Grand Canyon Antelopes are off to a Fast Start, Eyeing a WAC Title

Grand Canyon eyes a WAC Title

The Antelopes have started their 2020-21 campaign strong. Grand Canyon convincingly won their first three games against Grambling, Benedictine, and Mississippi Valley State by an average of 28.7 points. They currently average 81.6 points per game.

Though their first three contests could be argued as a soft schedule, Grand Canyon’s next matches were nothing of the sort. The Antelopes defeated Steve Alford’s Nevada Wolf Pack 87-77, and then two days later played No. 23 ASU to a one-point game. It took a clutch three by the Sun Devil’s preseason All-American, Remy Martin, with nine seconds left to beat Grand Canyon.

Yet, a loss is still a loss. But even with a win against a ranked PAC-12 foe, the Antelopes wouldn’t be receiving any at-large bids to the NCAA Tournament. However, what the program has accomplished in a short two-game span is that they’ve shown they can compete at a high level. Being able to schedule opponents from highly-touted mid-major and Power-5 conferences will not only help Grand Canyon gain exposure, but it will also allow them to grow as a program—even faster than they already have.

Dan Majerle Leads Grand Canyon’s Transition

In 2013, the Antelopes jumped up to NCAA Division I men’s basketball. The program joined the WAC, and after a four-year probationary period, they competed in their first conference tournament in 2018. The Antelopes reached the final as the 3-seed that year, losing to the perennial conference ruler, the New Mexico State Aggies.

At the helm of their transition into D-I ball was former NBA player Dan Majerle. Most basketball fans remember Majerle as a key contributor to the great Phoenix Suns‘ core of the late-1980s/early-1990s. His effective three-point shooting, defensive prowess, and thunderous dunks earned him three trips to the NBA All-Star game. He became beloved in Arizona as a player, and then as a coach—for seven years, at least.

Majerle led Grand Canyon to six winning seasons but was fired by the school after a subpar 2019-20 effort. It was an ugly breakup, one that led to a lawsuit, but just like any messy tail-end of a relationship, each party had to move on. Grand Canyon found their next match fairly quickly—another well-known name in the basketball world.

Bryce Drew Hired by Grand Canyon in 2020

Bryce Drew may be best known for his iconic buzzer-beater that led 13th-seeded Valparaiso to an upset victory over fourth-seeded Ole Miss in the first round of the 1998 NCAA Tournament. Here’s a reminder if you have three minutes:

Drew has blossomed into a successful college basketball coach, as well. He inherited the head coaching position at Valparaiso from his father, Homer Drew. He led the Crusaders to two NCAA Tournament appearances in five seasons before accepting the head coaching job at Vanderbilt. Under Drew’s leadership, the Commodores qualified for the NCAA Tournament during his first season.

Unfortunately, bad bounces and worse injuries led to two losing seasons. In 2019, Drew was eventually let go by Vanderbilt. He spent time as a college basketball analyst for ESPN but quickly rediscovered his eagerness to coach again. Grand Canyon hired Drew on March 17 to lead the Antelopes.

Drew told ESPN’s Jeff Borzello, “I want Grand Canyon to be the third school I’ve led to the NCAA Tournament.”

Though difficult, winning the conference isn’t impossible for the Antelopes, so Drew may get his chance.

WAC Outlook

Grand Canyon was selected to finish second in the preseason WAC polls. New Mexico State, as always, is the conference favorite and biggest obstacle for the Antelopes. The Aggies have three preseason WAC First-Team players in Johnny McCants, Jabari Rice, and Donnie Tillman, and Evan Gilyard Sr. is a Second-Team selection.

The Antelopes also have a quality roster. Jovan Blacksher and Oscar Frayer were both picked to the preseason WAC Second-Team. The team is already getting strong frontcourt contributions from Alessandro Lever and Asbjorn Midtgaard this season, as well. Lever leads the team in points, averaging 17.4 a game, and Midtgaard not only averages 12.8 points per game but also collects a team-high 9.4 rebounds.

Grand Canyon has a solid foundation on the court and a coach with great high-level experience leading the charge. The Antelopes could dethrone the Aggies this season, but it’s still going to be a difficult task. Anything can happen, though.

If Grand Canyon wins the WAC and makes the tournament, what’s the over/under on that famous shot from ’98 being aired and streamed? The clicks have already begun.

Looking Ahead: Grand Canyon hosts San Francisco on Dec. 20.

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