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Grand Canyon’s meteoric rise to college basketball relevance

Phoenix Suns legend Dan Majerle is the coach behind the biggest party in college basketball at GCU. 

NCAA Basketball: Grand Canyon at Duke Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

To say Grand Canyon is a unique Division I school would be an understatement.

The Antelopes have just finished their transition to D-I, have one of the most raucous student sections in the nation, and have a coach with an NBA pedigree. Oh, and they’re a for-profit university, which has given a tinge of controversy to every step of their strange journey to national relevance.

Regardless, the Antelopes have started off the 2017-18 season with a 4-0 record in their first year of NCAA postseason eligibility and their fifth overall season in Division I.

They are coached by NBA legend Dan Majerle, who has an 85-45 record in his five years on the job at Grand Canyon. It’s his first head coaching position at any level of basketball after a 14-year career in the NBA where he was a three-time All-Star and had his No. 9 retired by the Phoenix Suns.

Grand Canyon has finished in second place in the WAC in three consecutive years, but Majerle says that his squad is ready to take the next step and he expects them to win the WAC this year.

“This should be my best team,” he said.

With Grand Canyon being ineligible for the NCAA tournament for the past four years, Majerle said it was difficult to attract American players to campus, so he has taken a bit of an unconventional approach to recruiting and has a roster with seven internationally born players. The current GCU roster includes three Australian players as well as student-athletes from Italy, Finland, Latvia and Senegal.

Majerle pointed to 6’10 Italian freshman Alessandro Lever as a player to watch out for this season and he compared his game to Marc Gasol of the Memphis Grizzlies because of his touch and passing ability.

6’4 senior guard Josh Braun is the key to Grand Canyon’s success on the floor and was the first recruit Majerle signed when he was named head coach in 2013.

Braun has been named the WAC preseason Player of the Year in back-to-back seasons and has also been named first team All-Conference two years in a row. He averaged 17.5 points per game last season and was also nominated by the entire student body as “Mr. GCU.”

“When you think about the perfect kid, he is it,” Majerle said. “He’s the most amazing kid you’ll ever want to meet.”

Grand Canyon also received a major boost this offseason with the addition of graduate transfer Casey Benson from Oregon. Benson brings a heap of experience to the Antelopes having played in the Final Four last season and the Elite Eight the year before. Benson is a legend in the state of Arizona, having won three state championships for Corona del Sol High School en route to being named Arizona Gatorade Player of the Year. His older brother, TJ, is an assistant coach with GCU.

Grand Canyon recently increased its 5,000-seat arena to a 7,200-seat capacity due to the overwhelming demand for tickets. Majerle feels the GCU Arena has one of the top five atmospheres in the NCAA and calls it “the biggest party in college basketball.”

“We’ve been to Duke, Kentucky, Louisville and Indiana but our place is unbelievable,” He said. “It’s the most exciting basketball event that I’ve been to.”

With 49 wins over the past two seasons and a deep roster of talent headlined by some key seniors, GCU is a favorite in the WAC with legit NCAA Tournament aspirations.