Now Division I, advancing to NCAA Tournament is GCU’s ‘sole focus’

The Grand Canyon men’s basketball team makes the move to Division I competition this season. Coach Dan Majerle said his goal is to make the NCAA Tournament in the Antelopes’ first year. (Eddie Poe/Cronkite News)

The men’s basketball team at Grand Canyon has a strong fan base. The support will come in handy as the team makes the transition to Division I. (Photo courtesy Grand Canyon University)

PHOENIX — The momentum built slowly over the past four years as the men’s basketball program at Grand Canyon University awaited Division I eligibility.

Finally, the time is here.

“It’s been a short and long four years,” coach Dan Majerle said. “There’s a lot of anticipation and a lot of expectations and we want it no other way.”

After going 81-46 during the four-year probationary period — the best four-year stretch of any of the 36 schools that transitioned to Division I since 2000 — GCU is now eligible for the Western Athletic Conference Tournament and the NCAA Tournament, along with the NIT.

But despite being granted Division I eligibility, the mindset remains the same for GCU — win the WAC.

“To be Division I eligible and win (the) conference our first year and advance to the tournament, that’s been our sole focus,” Majerle said. “As a coaching staff, we’ve worked really hard the last few years to be here and our players have worked extremely hard.”

The expectations have always been high for Majerle and the Antelopes program. After a number of close fought games against Division I schools during the four-year transitional period — most notably a 79-70 loss to then-No. 14 ranked Louisville — the upcoming season truly serves as a way to let their talent both be seen and heard.

The face of the Antelopes program and a player who has been there every step of the way through the transition, guard Joshua Braun has had his eyes set on the upcoming season for some time.

“Just to see how this campus has grown and how much the university has progressed during my time here, it’s obviously what we’ve been waiting for and preparing for,” Braun said.

A fifth-year senior, Braun averaged 17.5 points per game last season and earned All-WAC First Team honors for the second straight season.

His time at GCU has given him perspective on the type of atmosphere that has been forged both on and off the court. Home games at GCU Arena are known nationwide to be a well kept secret with a raucous atmosphere led by an incredibly passionate fan base.

Following a close win on the road last season, Louisville coach Rick Pitino had very high praise for the environment that’s been created at GCU.

“In college basketball, my 40-plus years, (that) was the toughest crowd I’ve ever faced,” Pitino said. “Whether we go to Duke, Kentucky, nothing was as tough as that environment.”

That environment goes far beyond the pride shared by the nearly 20,000 students at GCU. It stays within the 17-man roster that will come together this season to pursue a list of firsts for the university.

“We’ve really become a family here, it’s almost become an extension of my own family,” Braun said.

Braun and his teammates just recently said goodbye to a former teammate — DeWayne Russell — as he begins pursuing a professional basketball career in France, and although it can be tough to send off both teammates and friends, the excitement is felt throughout.

“It’s just cool to see these guys stick together even after they leave here,” he said. “Everybody cares for one another and really supports each other.”

An added face this season and one with extensive Division I experience, guard Casey Benson is back home and eager to help the Antelopes reach the NCAA Tournament.

A product of Corona del Sol High School in Tempe, Benson spent the first three years of his collegiate career at the University of Oregon as part of two Final Four teams. He is able to play immediately at GCU because he received his undergraduate degree in Eugene in three years.

“To be able to come home and finish my last year here, you really couldn’t have written it any better,” Benson said. “There’s nothing like it. I just have to relish it and enjoy every minute of it.”

Not only will Benson be able to relish the final year of his collegiate playing career at home, he’ll also be able to do it under the watch of his older brother.

T.J. enters his sixth season with the program and his fourth as an assistant coach under Majerle. He recognizes just how unique this season will be for the two of them.

“I don’t think it’s anything that either of us would’ve predicted four or five years ago when (he) was beginning college,” Benson said. “For him to have the opportunity to come back home and be near family and friends and for me to be able to coach him, I know it’s something that we’ll look back on 10, 15, 20 years from now and cherish with one another.”

The rarity of it all certainly hasn’t escaped Casey either.

“He’s another set of eyes, you know,” he said. “He played my position and he’s always keeping me accountable and encouraging me. He tells me what he sees, the things I need to work on. It’s great.”

The Antelopes will begin the regular season at home on Nov. 10 when they welcome Florida A&M to GCU Arena. In early December, they will take part in the Valley of the Sun Shootout at Talking Stick Resort Arena along with Arizona, Texas A&M and St. John’s.

GCU has gone 11-3 vs. WAC competition each of the last two seasons and will open up conference play on Jan. 6 at Seattle University, followed by its home opener on Jan. 11 against rival New Mexico State.

“There’s a lot of great games on the schedule — Louisville, and St. John’s at Talking Stick — but really, we’re just anxious to get started with WAC competition,” Majerle said. “Opening up at Seattle, that’ll be a very tough to play but we view all conference competition as equal.”

For the players, the anticipation may be heightened now more than ever. Even though the expectations of previous years won’t have changed, a brand new spotlight has been placed on them.

It’s now up to a group of 17 young men to prove to a nation that its program belongs.

“We know what we need to do,” Braun said.

“It’s just a matter of preparing and taking care of everything that we know we can take care of, whether that’s effort or conditioning, if we go out and execute the rest will be taken care of.”