PHOENIX – The Grand Canyon University men’s basketball team felt a special season brewing with this year’s close-knit group. However, the Lopes’ run to the NCAA tournament wasn’t immune to adversity, and before Friday’s tip-off against No. 3 Gonzaga, another episode hit after landing in Denver.
GCU’s team equipment – practice gear, uniforms and shoes – went missing on its flight from Phoenix, and the team’s first practice was held with players dressed in airport travel attire.
Still, the Lopes’ mindset on Thursday – one developed through an up-and-down season – remains undeterred entering their second NCAA tournament appearance in the past three seasona.
“Our mentality is similar to the mentality that we’ve had this entire year,” said sophomore guard Ray Harrison, who leads the team in scoring. “We know who they are, but we know who we are, as well. … We’re just excited.”
The Lopes hope to continue building to reach the same realm as the Bulldogs, who have been an NCAA tournament mainstay since the late ‘90s as a mid-major school. While GCU’s selling point in the recruitment process isn’t the future in 20 years, the program is cognizant of the goal to compete for a tournament berth each year while molding young men.
“(The school was) just really selling GCU, what they wanted to be, and that was just a faith-driven school,” junior forward Gabe McGlothan said. “(I just wanted) to go there and find this great culture, this great opportunity and join that.”
Harrison added, “It wasn’t just about basketball or how they could help me on the court. It was mainly how they could transform me into a better young man.”
GCU coach Bryce Drew sees similarities of his program in his team’s first-round opponent and believes he’s on the right track to achieve the Zags’ success. Patience is key, he says.
“I think we’re on the way to (building what Gonzaga has built),” Drew said. “Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen overnight. It takes steps, and I think we’re taking the right steps to get there.”
The culture, rooted in family, that brought McGlothan and Harrison together at GCU has been put to test throughout the season. While the Lopes finished 24-11 overall, and 10-7 in the Western Athletic Conference, they had to overcome the loss of junior guard Jovan Blacksher, whose knee injury limited him to 12 games.
“The first thing that we (said when Blacksher went down) was, ’We need to do this for him,’” McGlothan said. “We took hits as a family. We’re so close to each other, it’s just like we rally around each other.”
While each player will have new shoes for the biggest game of the season, McGlothan says they will be able to laugh looking back on this week’s developments. The distraction didn’t shift their mindset and focus, Drew said.
After all, GCU has the confidence entering the tournament riding a six-game winning streak and Thursday’s March Madness upsets – No. 4 UVA and No. 2 University of University both lost – should only boost the Lopes’ belief that they can pull off the same feat.
“This group has been really loose throughout the last few weeks of conference tournament,” Drew said. “They’re still a confident group that’s doing it with a loose personality nature.”