Grand Canyon finally did it on Saturday. The Lopes beat New Mexico State, 74-56, in the WAC championship game to clinch the school’s first-ever bid to the NCAA Tournament.
After spending the first seven years being dominated by the Aggies, cutting down the Orleans Arena nets felt like it was a long time coming. It was a redemption story for a GCU team that was embarrassed in the same moment two times prior. It was a redemption story for Bryce Drew in his first season, as he was fired at Vanderbilt in humiliating fashion.
As a former student who has watched this program grow since its first year in Division I, it was extremely special for me and for Lopes fans who have been deeply invested in this young program since its inception.
It feels even better for GCU senior Alessandro Lever, who has been a significant contributor for the Lopes the past four seasons.
“It’s amazing,” he said. “We finally made it. We played together. We played tough. We played as a team and competed as hard as we could.”
It is the highlight of the story for a program that has had this script already written for them, but now they finally get the chance to live it out in reality. The past failures make this victory feel even sweeter.
This is something that has been expected for the Lopes to do for a long time. Grand Canyon has been college basketball’s next big mid-major for a half decade with its new facilities, electric home-court environment fueled, Power 5 money, legendary NBA connections, and a marketing machine that rivals a Fortune 500 company.
With all of these features and resources behind them, GCU set a goal for itself to be the next Gonzaga — a consistent top 25 team — and the program that would unseat New Mexico State in the WAC. Once the Lopes became eligible in 2018, they were supposed to travel through the college basketball hierarchy like a country-wide bullet train. That’s all I remember hearing as a student from 2014-18.
Often, high expectations set a stage for major dips and disappointments. Quickly, the Lopes realized the difficulties of trying to reach the sport’s biggest stage. Unseating a New Mexico State program that has won the WAC auto-bid 10 times in the past 12 years proved to be difficult.
Over the last three years, GCU experienced some bumps in their plan: failing to get a marquee top 100 win, missing out on a WAC regular-season title, and most importantly losing in the last two previous WAC title game appearances by a combined 44 points. Last year, the Lopes struggled to a sub-.500 record, and GCU fired Phoenix legend Dan Majerle after the season. It became clear that a well-executed marketing campaign doesn’t help get you into the NCAA Tournament.
To fix this, GCU brought in a new coach who changed the entire direction of the program.
The Lopes plugged in former Valparaiso and Vanderbilt coach Bryce Drew to replace Majerle. Coaching is the Drew family business. His father, Homer Drew, won 611 games at Valparaiso, and his son Scott turned Baylor into a national power. The unification between Drew and GCU was a match made in heaven from day one. It was centered around Drew’s faith-first personality.
Drew talked about how faith was a core focus to the team’s success and unity. Shortly after the initial celebration after the WAC title game, the team huddled around in a group prayer that was shown on national TV. Faith is a huge principle for the university as a whole and Drew made it clear that it was one of the main cornerstones that made this team successful.
“Often times in life you wonder why things happen and things go a certain way,” he said. “No matter what happens, what we want to do is put God first in our program and he is put first in our program.”
If you don’t already believe in destiny, the Lopes’ championship on March 13 marked the 23rd anniversary of Drew’s magic March Madness moment as a player where he hit “The Shot” to shock 10th-ranked Ole Miss at the buzzer.
Drew chuckled when that fact was brought up postgame:
“To make it even crazier, 23 years ago that happens and then to be able to celebrate with these guys out there and do something that Grand Canyon has never done before, I don’t get sentimental very much but this one is really special.”
Drew also used his faith to help rebuild his own image. He needed his own redemption, after a disappointing three-year stint as the head coach of Vanderbilt. Drew spent a year on the side doing analyst work for ESPN. When GCU came calling, it was like destiny.
“Any time you go through trials and tribulations, it makes you stronger,” he said. “It increases your character and your faith. For myself personally, I felt a mission to come to GCU, I felt a heart to coach to my abilities to help GCU get to an NCAA Tournament.”
Drew knew how he wanted to build a contender. In the past, Grand Canyon lacked a dominant big man who can secure rebounds and protect the paint. Drew had coached some great college big men in the past from Luke Kornet to Alec Peters.
He went to work early, landing a literal Big Man in 7’1 Wichita State transfer Asbjorn Midtgaard. Midtgaard’s size, presence, and toughness gave GCU an asset it never had before. Midtgaard was a huge reason for GCU’s success on the court, averaging 14.8 points, 8.8 rebounds, and led the country in field goal percentage. Midtgaard gave GCU unreal size and rebounding at the 5, and was the most reliable scorer. Drew’s first recruit, Midtgaard, brought the personality and toughness Drew set out for his team. Drew said Midtgaard established the culture in the first practice as a team:
“Asbjorn set a tone for us this summer, and it was our first time together as a team,” Drew said. “We finally were able to get through COVID and scrimmage. First practice, [he] was spiraling across the court for loose balls. He did a double-take the first time, and he set a tone we were going to play tough. We have fed off that. It becomes more contagious, and we have seen results from it.”
The greatness of this GCU team was built during the summer in the middle of the pandemic. It is crazy to think this team built this type of chemistry in those conditions. He built a team-friendly culture built on faith, unselfishness, and toughness.
We quickly saw the Lopes carry the results into the non-conference in their early games. The Lopes’ aggressiveness and toughness shift was apparent in the non-conference, where they beat a good Nevada team, lost to a fully healthy Arizona State team at the buzzer, and hung with Colorado.
With size and strength, the Lopes weren’t going to be bullied. GCU ranked second in the country in opponent field goal percentage thanks to the toughness Drew set in. That stringent defense held the Aggies to just 36% shooting Saturday night.
Midtgaard isn’t the only one doing the dirty work. The toughness Drew presents in this team flows through every player. You can make the argument that GCU will be the deepest team outside of Gonzaga in the NCAA Tournament. The Lopes have nine guys that average more than 10 minutes per game. Many coaches say they have trust in all of their guys, but Drew puts those words into action. Their depth will serve them in the tournament.
Now after beating New Mexico State, the Lopes have a tough matchup against 2 seed Iowa. The Lopes have the opportunity to face one of the best players in the country in potential player of the year Luka Garza. Iowa is one of the best offensive teams in the country, and we will see how good their top-rated defense actually is. While Lope Nation will hype up GCU throughout the week, this team has the bite to back up their fan base’s barks. Grand Canyon has the size, toughness, and a strong enough defense to keep them competitive against this Iowa team. Drew already has a collection of great March moments. Another could just be destiny.