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Cal Baptist and Grand Canyon are taking similar paths

The high-scoring Feb. 8 matchup pitted two of the newest D1 programs against each other — and both are more similar than one would expect.

Grand Canyon v New Mexico State Photo by Joe Buglewicz/Getty Images

RIVERSIDE — By the time Cal Baptist was preparing to leave Division II and join the WAC, Grand Canyon was becoming college basketball’s next potential sleeping giant.

In the 2018-19 season, the Lopes were building on their third-straight 22-win season, had built a national brand from their student section, were attracting the nation’s top grad transfers, and became the first NCAA program to win 100 games in its first five years of existence. The Lopes were a game away from making the NCAA Tournament in their first year of eligibility, and they appeared to be one of the next big mid-majors in the sport.

GCU’s success was a tough act to follow for the WAC’s next newcomer. But so far, Cal Baptist has demonstrated that it can match GCU’s Division I debut and then some.

The Lancers have set their own standard. CBU entered the NCAA from the NAIA ranks in 2014, spent only four years in Division II and flourished by making four tournament appearances, including a Division II Elite Eight appearance in 2018. After an impressive inaugural first year, the Lancers have improved in their second act: Despite the loss against Grand Canyon on Saturday, the Lancers sit at second place in the WAC with a 7-3 record and are two games ahead of the next best team in the conference. CBU has also surpassed last season’s 16 wins — and it’s only February.

When the two teams met on Feb. 8, WAC basketball fans had the chance to compare the two programs battle in a highly entertaining game. Both teams set offensive milestones: The Lancers set a new program record with 19 threes in the game, whereas the Lopes set both their D1 record for points in a regulation game and field goal percentage (61%). Grand Canyon was in control for a majority of the game, but the Lancers made a barrage threes and cut a late 13-point deficit to four in the final minutes. GCU guards Carlos Johnson and Mikey Dixon’s late field goals were the difference in the Lopes’ 103-98 win.

Even GCU head coach Dan Majerle had positive words to say about CBU’s program afterwards.

“They have done a great job here they tried to model themselves after us, and that is flattery to us because I think we’re the best,” Majerle said. “This is growing program, [CBU head coach Rick] Croy has done a great job with this team. We knew this was going to be a tough game.”

Despite the result, it’s becoming clear that the Lancers’ D1 transition will always be compared to Grand Canyon’s. The schools are mirror images of each other — from the proximity, to the founding date of the school, their Christian principles and to the framework of their basketball programs. Naturally, they have become the WAC’s newest rivals.

CBU and GCU are two of the three Division I programs to post double-digit wins against D1 teams in the last 10 seasons (the third is Merrimack, which did so in 2019-20). In its inaugural season, Cal Baptist went 16-15, setting the record for the most wins by a first year team — a record Grand Canyon previously held with its 15-win season in 2013-2014.

With the second year of D1 play nearly completed, the Lancers’ trajectory mirrors that of Grand Canyon’s in several ways.

Investing in the fanbase

Both schools loaded up their resources and firepower before making the jump to D1.

Grand Canyon was led by the advisement of basketball executive legend Jerry Colangelo. He recruited local Phoenix icon Dan Majerle to become the school’s basketball coach, helped the university upgrade its facilities and recruited big time programs like Kentucky, Louisville, and Duke to play Grand Canyon in marquee games to gain exposure. With that money, the school invested in marketing themselves to the community.

However, in year two, Grand Canyon’s social takeover wasn’t complete. GCU expanded the arena from 5,000 to 7,000 seats and The Havocs, GCU’s now-famous student section, was a small group. But that student section had its moments by selling out home games against New Mexico, Harvard and New Mexico State.

In year two, Cal Baptist has a similar resources to advance its basketball program. Going into D1, it was reported that CBU’s athletic budget was 14 million dollars in the 2016-2017 season. During that time, Cal Baptist’s investments have paid off. Over the past year, Cal Baptist has had their season ticket sales increased by 17% and has experienced a 32% increase in total ticket sales. Against GCU, Cal Baptist hosted a record-breaking crowd of 5,105.

After that game, Coach Croy shared his message about how his program has grown through D1.

“We are united as a program — everyone is all in,” Croy said. “When we decided to make this move, we got full support from our administration. When you have that kind of support it gives you great confidence. We have great leadership; we brought that forward with us from D-II. There’s exciting things happening here. It doesn’t get better than tonight having a sold out crowd on a Saturday night.”

Using the transfer portal

Both coaches turned to transfers to jumpstart the teams transition to Division 1.

During Grand Canyon’s early years, the grad transfer market was still in its infant stages. However, Majerle did a bring a slew of transfers that help jump-started his programs: Texas A&M transfer Daniel Alexander helped develop the culture, and former 5-star recruit and Washington State/Kansas transfer Royce Woolridge brought high-quality talent, but Northern Arizona’s DeWayne Russell changed the program forever.

Russell wasn’t eligible until the second semester of Majerle’s second season, but he defined Majerle’s early years at GCU. Russell became the best player in program history by averaging 14.2 PPG and made first-team All-WAC. Russell put GCU on the national stage when he scored 42 points in a 2017 home game against Louisville, then finished second in the State Farm College Basketball three-point contest at the Final Four.

Cal Baptist has also had several transfers, such as Brandon Boyd (Idaho State) and Milan Acquaah (Washington State).

“We want to get great people that want to be here at this great university — whether they are transfers or freshmen, we are going to develop all of our guys,” Croy said. “That’s been on display all season as you can see the play of transfer Brandon Boyd, and our freshmen Tre Armstrong. We are going to continue to get better.”

In particular, Acquaah has made an immediate impact. Acquaah received WAC first team honors in Cal Baptist’s inaugural season and is now a WAC Player of the Year candidate. Acquaah made news last year by testing the NBA Draft waters; he has a legitimate chance to be the first Cal Baptist alum to make an appearance in the NBA.

The senior scored his 1,000th career point in Saturday’s 103-98 loss against GCU and erupted for 30 points (including 5-10 from three) while adding 10 assists. While GCU hit a barrage of threes, Acquaah had every answer, stretching GCU defense with deep threes and setting up his teammates up with open shots when GCU collapsed the lane whenever Acquaah drove.

Recruiting Down Under

Additionally, both Coach Croy and Dan Majerle heavily recruited out of the country in Australia for their first recruiting classes.

Majerle recruited Gerard Martin and Matt Jackson in his first recruiting class in 2014.Despite struggling with their share of injuries, Martin and Jackson were leaders for the Lopes during their transition period. Martin was a one-year starter and made significant defensive contributions off the bench while averaging 4.0 PPG and 3.2 RPG. Jackson was a role player who averaged 4.1 PPG.

Right now, the Lancers have four Aussie players on the roster: Tre Armstrong, Reed Nottage, Bul Kuol, and Glenn Morrison. All players average over 13 minutes per game off the bench. Armstrong had a career night against GCU, scoring 12 points on 4-5 shooting in just 12 minutes of action. In the final minutes, Armstrong caught a pass near mid-court from Acquaah and drilled a 30 ft pull up three to cut the Lopes lead to five.

The Lancers will probably rely on Armstrong to hit big shots for years to come.

Non-conference scheduling

Both GCU and CBU had 12 wins against D1 teams in their first years. However, both teams played significantly weaker schedules after that by scheduling 20 home games the next year.

Cal Baptist played four non-D1 schools in both years as a Division I program. This year, the Lancers played four SWAC schools and have 20 home games. Cal Baptist’s non conference schedule ranked 319th in 2019 and 345th this year, while Grand Canyon non-conference SOS ranked 72nd in their inaugural year of 2014 and 333rd in 2015, per KenPom. It’s fair to point out the WAC as a whole has improved since Grand Canyon joined the conference.

It is evident that Cal Baptist modeled its schedule after Grand Canyon, minus the big-name non-conference opponents.

With Colangelo’s help, the Lopes played eight top-100 KenPom programs in its first two years — including the 2015 Kentucky team that featured Devin Booker and Karl-Anthony Towns. The Lopes went 0-8 in all of those tries, but had a non-conference home win against New Mexico in 2014-15, then Houston the following year.

Smart scheduling made a significant impact in both teams’ successes. Both had the resources in the program not be reliant on buy games to generate revenue, which is often a challenge for new D1 schools.

How does CBU’s second year compare with Grand Canyon’s?

Cal Baptist has had a lot of early success in their brief tenure in division 1. Grand Canyon helped them paive the way to do that. Because of this, GCU and Cal Baptist will always be compared. So far in year two, it looks like Cal Baptist is slightly ahead of where GCU was at this stage.

But CBU still has a lot of work to do. The Lancers will lose Brandon Boyd, De’jon Davis and possibly Acquah next year. GCU made a huge jump in year three of the Dan Majerle era by winning 27 games. Only time will tell if Cal Baptist can make a similar jump with its young roster in year three.

As its time in D1 continues, they will be able to build their national brand. Having GCU in the same conference serves as a benchmark and a challenge to replicate that success.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article stated that Cal Baptist and Grand Canyon were the only transitioning Division I programs with 10 or more wins against D1 competition in their inaugural seasons. The article has been changed to reflect Merrimack’s 2019-20 season, in which the NEC’s newest member also won more than 10 games that year.