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Preview: Grand Canyon meets St. John’s in its most important game ever

Embrace the hyperbole.

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

The internet is nothing if not great for hyperbole.

Grand Canyon gets to indulge in a big slice of it Tuesday night when it meets St. John’s at Talking Stick Arena. The second game of the BBVA Valley of the Sun Shootout is, to this point, the most important game in the Lopes’ Div. I history.

Sure, GCU has played in postseason tournaments. The Lopes made three-straight appearances in the CIT from 2014-16, even winning a pair of games during their last trip. They’ve also felt the national spotlight before, playing a well-publicized home game against Louisville last season. And GCU has won big out of conference, knocking off San Diego State each of the past two seasons.

But no game the Lopes have played in their four-years-and-counting Div. I existence had the ultimate stakes in the picture. It’s been written on this site plenty and worth the redundancy: the for-profit Lopes quest for an NCAA Tournament berth in their first season of eligibility is one of the stories of 2017-18.

The first real test in that journey comes against the Red Storm.

GCU has not yet left the raucous confines of GCU Arena this season, and except for one game against San Diego (a loss), has not played a top-257 KenPom team. The Lopes get a significant uptick in competition against a Red Storm team picked to finish in the middle of a tough Big East.

St. John’s (7-1) already has wins over UCF, Oregon State and Nebraska and features a disruptive defense that forces turnovers at the third-highest rate in the country. They also have a fearless offensive gunner in Shamorie Ponds, a sophomore guard that averages 19.3 points on 16.3 field goal attempts per game. The Lopes get a break as Marcus LoVett, another explosive sophomore guard, is out with a sprained knee.

Our friends at Big East Coast Bias wrote about what LoVett’s absence means.

In seven games, LoVett has packed a punch. He’s averaged 14.9 points, second on the team behind star sophomore Shamorie Ponds. He has been terrific from long range, shooting 40.5 percent from 3-point land, the second-best mark on the team behind Michigan State Spartanstransfer Marvin Clark II. LoVett scored in double figures in six of his seven contests, three in which he scored more that 15 points and a 23-point outing in the opener against the New Orleans Privateers.

If the Johnnies want to make it a memorable trip to Arizona, they will have to have others step up if LoVett’s absence becomes a problem. Look for [Marvin] Clark, Bashir Ahmed and Justin Simon to try and take on the load along with Ponds, of course.

Here are three things worth watching in GCU’s seven-mile trip to Talking Stick Arena:

Can Josh Braun break out of his slump? The star senior wing has shot just four-for-18 from three over the past three games. The Lopes offense has struggled when the three pointers aren’t falling, and over the past two games they’ve shot just 14.3 percent as a team from deep. This didn’t cost them the last time out against UC Riverside, but did bite them in the loss to San Diego. Braun, GCU’s all-time leader in three-point makes, is much better than he’s shot recently. To get a quality win against St. John’s and build momentum, GCU will need him at his best.

How does the GCU frontline fare against Big East athletes? An experienced ballhandler like Casey Benson shouldn’t have too much trouble with St. John’s pressing defense. While that’s worth watching, so are the Lopes’ bigs against better length and athleticism than they’ve seen all year. Freshman forward Roberts Blumbergs had great games against UC Riverside (14 points, 7 rebounds) and Norfolk State (14 points, 8 rebounds, 6 assists) over the past two weeks, but struggled in the loss to the Toreros (2 points, 6 rebounds). Can he build confidence by being a factor against the Red Storm? That’ll be a key for a GCU team that needs to develop frontcourt depth beyond Keonta Vernon.

Is this the best potential one-on-one match up between coaches? You might want to break out NBA Jam after seeing Dan Majerle and Chris Mullin across the sideline from one another. Ponds has the same green light that Mullin did as a player, which may make the rugged perimeter defender in Majerle want to jump back on the court that he played four seasons on as a Sun.