Grand Canyon’s maiden voyage into NCAA contention hit its first snag Saturday night in, of all places, the purple frenzy of GCU Arena.
The Lopes 11-game winning streak fell after a 72-62 loss to San Diego. It was just GCU’s third home non-conference loss over the past three seasons, which includes the competitive loss to Louisville last year and a loss to a quality Omaha team in 2015.
The Toreros were able to bottle up a Lopes’ offense that had been on fire from the outside in its first three games. GCU came into the game shooting over 40 percent as a team from three, but went just four-for-23 (17.4%) against a defense set on flipping on that script.
“I thought our guys executed the game plan defensively as well as they have all year,” said [USD coach Lamont] Smith. “We knew coming into this environment how explosive they can be, how quickly they can put points on the board.
“We figured one of the keys was taking away the 3 ball.”
With the three not falling, GCU’s offense stalled, especially late in a close game. Josh Braun had another great game (20 points), even though the Toreros’ — in particular guard Olin Carter — did a good job hounding him. No one else was able to step up in the last 10 minutes, with Oscar Frayer missing a number of opportunities.
Finding consistent offense outside of Braun will likely be priority number one for Dan Majerle the rest of the season. The Lopes can spread the floor like few other teams, especially if freshman forward Roberts Blumbergs has more success from distance. But when those shots aren’t falling, there isn’t a proven second scoring option behind Braun. That’s particularly the case since despite all the good things Keonta Vernon does, he’s not necessarily a player the team can throw the ball into when the offense is struggling.
But the sky isn’t falling on GCU.
Braun is one of the premier offensive players at the mid-major level, and the roster is stocked with shooters and a savvy veteran ballhandler in Casey Benson. On more nights than most that’s going to equate to plenty of points supporting a good defense. And there’s plenty of time for a second option to emerge.
Frayer, the ultra-talented sophomore, is the prime candidate and despite a rough shooting night against USD (1-6 3FG), is off to a good start. His field goal percentage (57.7%) is 18 points higher than last year, albeit against weaker competition. Should he continue to develop into an offensive force, the Lopes will be a challenge to defend.
Time really is the key, since despite all the early season buzz and excitement, GCU doesn’t have to be at its best right now. USD is not a bad loss, as the Toreros are currently a top-150 KenPom that may well find themselves in the WCC’s upper third. The question will be whether the Lopes can avoid — or survive — offensive droughts in March with all the chips finally on the table.