In a year of NCAA basketball uncertainty, GCU only Arizona school going dancing

Grand Canyon players Mikey Dixon (left) and Ethan Spry leap in the air after the Lopes captured the Western Athletic Conference men’s basketball title Saturday in Las Vegas and earned a berth to the NCAA Tournament, their first. (Photo by Joe Buglewicz/Getty Images)

PHOENIX – When Bryce Drew was hired to replace Dan Majerle as coach at Grand Canyon last March, the Lopes were not in a great spot.

The 2019-20 season saw GCU suffer its worst season since becoming a Division I basketball school in 2013, a 13-17 overall record and 8-8 mark in the Western Athletic Conference. Majerle, who guided the program through its transition to Division I and is beloved by Phoenix Suns fans, was fired because of the poor results.

That opened the door for Drew, whose last coaching stop hadn’t gone any better than Majerle’s final season at GCU. In Drew’s final season at Vanderbilt in 2018-19, the Commodores won only nine games and were 0-18 in conference play. He was fired at season’s end.

But Drew’s first season at Grand Canyon provided important firsts, and some big surprises.

The Lopes won their first WAC Tournament title and with it, the school’s first NCAA Tournament bid. And the Lopes did it in a season in which their in-state foes Arizona State (which began the year as a Top 25 team) and Arizona (a staple in March Madness) surprisingly missed the Big Dance entirely.

“It’s been a tough year. Just a lot of things thrown at us this year,” ASU coach Bobby Hurley said.


It all seems fitting in such a strange season, not just for Arizona teams but around the college basketball world.

Duke and Kentucky both missed the tournament for the first time since 1976. Oregon State won the Pac-12 tournament for the first time in school history. Rutgers is making its first NCAA Tournament appearance in three decades. And Georgetown completed a stunning run to the Big East Tournament title by dumping Creighton in the championship game.

No wonder uncertainty reigns supreme ahead of this year’s NCAA Tournament.

Here’s how GCU and the five Pac-12 schools in the field of 68 – Oregon State, UCLA, Oregon, USC and Colorado – fared during a season defined by a global pandemic and where they begin their NCAA tournament journeys.

GCU

Grand Canyon may have entered the 2020-21 season as a relative underdog, but the Lopes had no trouble reaching their first ever NCAA Tournament.

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GCU dispatched their conference tournament foes, Seattle and New Mexico State, by a combined 52 points enroute to clinching a spot in March Madness. And the Lopes had a strong regular season, finishing the year with the seventh strongest defensive rating in the nation and a 17-6 overall record.

The Lopes even survived a 20-day COVID-19 pause in the beginning of February, not playing their first game of the month until the 19th. All three of GCU’s losses in conference play came within the four games after coming back from that in-season disruption.

Slotted as a No.15 seed in the field of 68, GCU will play No. 2 seed Iowa on Saturday, at 3:25 p.m. Arizona time on TBS.

Oregon State

The Beavers return to the NCAA Tournament for just the second time since 1990, even after losing their top scorer from a season ago in Tres Tinkle.

The journey to Indiana wasn’t easy for coach Wayne Tinkle’s team. The Beavers had gone just 10-10 during Pac-12 regular season play and entered the conference tournament as a No. 5 seed after garnering only two wins against eventual NCAA Tournament teams during the regular season.

It meant Oregon State needed to win three games in three days at the Pac-12 Tournament, all against teams that eventually made the NCAA field, in order to appear on the bracket themselves.

But that’s exactly what Oregon State did. The Beavers ran the table and will open March Madness as a No. 12 seed and will take on No.5 seed Tennessee Friday at 1:30 p.m. Arizona time on TNT.


UCLA

Sunday’s bracket reveal was a nerve-wracking one for the Bruins, who squeezed into the NCAA Tournament as a First Four team – one of the last four non-conference tournament champions to be admitted into the field.

UCLA beat only two teams in the NCAA Tournament field, Colorado and Oregon State, despite posting an otherwise solid 17-9 regular season record. Four straight defeats to end the season did not help the Bruins’ chances for a higher tournament seed.

“We felt that their seed was hurt by the way they played a little bit at the end of the year,” said Mitch Barnhart, chair of the NCAA Tournament Selection Committee.

But for the first time since 2018, UCLA is March Madness-bound and will play fellow No.11 seed Michigan State on Thursday at 6:57 p.m. Arizona time on TBS.

Oregon

Oregon’s last three appearances in the NCAA Tournament saw the Ducks reach at least the Sweet 16. Coach Dana Altman’s team is a No. 7 seed with hopes of making another run.

The Ducks are a strong team. Altman’s squad has won 11 of its last 13 games heading into the tournament and is led by the Pac-12 Player of the Year, guard Chris Duarte.

“(Oregon is) now healthy and playing really, really well,” Barnhart said.

Oregon opens against No. 10 seed Virginia Commonwealth Saturday at 6:57 p.m. Arizona time on TNT.

USC

Led by presumptive top-5 NBA Draft pick Evan Mobley, the Trojans finished their 2020-21 schedule with 15 conference wins, most in the league.

But USC has fallen off since an 18-3 start. Coach Andy Enfield’s team has lost four of its last seven games. The Trojans also suffered three losses to Colorado this year– defeats that Barnhart explained were a significant determining factor in the Trojans slipping to a lower seed than the Buffaloes.

USC opens March Madness on Saturday at 1:30 p.m. Arizona time on TNT against the winner of the First Four matchup between No. 11 Wichita State and No. 11 Drake.

Colorado

Senior guard McKinley Wright has been waiting for this moment.

Wright, who has led the fifth-seeded Buffaloes in scoring in three of his four seasons in Boulder, has finally gotten Colorado in the NCAA Tournament.

Colorado boasts the highest seed for a Pac-12 team in the tournament with a 14-6 record in conference play and, importantly for the Selection Committee, eight wins against March Madness-bound teams.


Wright makes his NCAA Tournament debut at 9:15 a.m. Arizona time against No. 12 seed Georgetown Saturday on CBS.

Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Koki Riley expects to graduate in May 2021 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Riley, who has interned with The Arizona Republic and Cape Cod Baseball League, is working for Cronkite News this spring.

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