Bryce Drew returns home, brings burgeoning GCU team to NCAA Tournament

First-year coach Bryce Drew led the Grand Canyon men’s basketball team to its first Western Athletic Conference title. It begins play in the WAC Tournament Friday. (Photo courtesy of Grand Canyon Athletics)

PHOENIX – Bryce Drew is returning home. And bringing with him the knowledge that he played a pivotal role in elevating Grand Canyon men’s basketball.

By winning the Western Athletic Conference Tournament in Las Vegas, GCU earned an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, its first appearance in school history.

GCU is the only Arizona team to make the NCAA Tournament this season, with ASU struggling and UArizona under a self-imposed postseason ban. As a No. 15 seed, the Lopes are naturally heavy underdogs, facing a two-seeded Iowa squad Saturday with national player of the year candidate Luka Garza.

“We’re going to try and prepare as we always do. We’ve won games, and we won’t try to do too much different,” Lopes senior Asbjorn Midtgaard said.

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GCU completed the transition to Division I in 2017 and was just one game away from an automatic tournament bid in 2018 and 2019. Now, with Drew at the helm, they have been able to get over the hump and seem poised to build upon the best season in program history.

“I feel that GCU is the best-kept secret in college basketball,” Drew said. “We have unbelievable facilities, unbelievable support, I think we have the best fanbase in the country.

“Everything happens in steps, you know, things don’t happen overnight. Just really proud of our team and what they’ve accomplished in one year. Hopefully, we can use this as momentum to keep building in the future.”

Due to the pandemic, the entirety of the tournament will be played in Drew’s home state of Indiana. Drew was Mr. Basketball in the state in 1994 and went on to play under his father, Homer, at Valparaiso.

Hinkle Fieldhouse in Indianapolis means a lot to Drew.

“Hinkle’s a special place,” he said. “I got to coach against Brad Stevens there when I was at Valpo. My dad coached his first game at Valpo against Butler at Butler, and so that the first game I got to see as a son at Hinkle with my dad coaching.”

Homer coached at Valparaiso for 22 seasons, going 370-306 and taking the Crusaders to seven NCAA tournaments. Bryce was a part of the first three tournament teams. In the first round in 1998, Bryce Drew hit a game-winner in an upset over Ole Miss, a shot that has lived in March Madness lore.

“When they announced the tournament was coming back to Indiana, the antennas went up how awesome that would be if our team could make it here.”

Bryce’s brother, Scott, was an assistant coach with Valpo in 1998 and is now coaching at Baylor, and has the Bears as one of the favorites to win the tournament.

While Bryce has his own team to prepare, he also is fully supporting Scott in his quest for a national championship.

“If he’s in the Final Four, we’ll definitely be there,” Bryce said about his family.

His focus now, however, is on Iowa, 21-8 on the year including 15-7 in a Big Ten conference that sent other top seeds to the tournament, including Illinois and Michigan, as well as a No. 2 seed in Ohio State.

Coming into the tournament, 15 seeds were just 8-132 against the 2 seeds. It can happen, however, as No. 15 seed Oral Roberts upset No. 2 seed Ohio State in overtime Friday.

In 2012, both Lehigh and Norfolk State were able to win their Round of 64 games against No. 2 seeded Duke and Missouri, respectively. That’s the only year with multiple 15-over-2 upsets.

In 2013, Florida Gulf Coast even made it to the Sweet 16 after upsetting Georgetown and San Diego State.

Even with the pomp and circumstance surrounding the tournament, the Lopes are keeping with a business as usual approach.

“Coming in here, just gonna practice what we practice, keep doing what we do: follow our structure, and go out there and have fun,” sophomore Javon Blacksher Jr. said.

GCU and Iowa square off at 3:25 p.m. Arizona time Saturday on TBS.

Dylan Wilhelm DIL-lun WIL-helm (he/him/his)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Dylan Wilhelm expects to graduate in May 2022 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. Wilhelm, who has worked for The State Press, is working for the Phoenix news bureau.