PHOENIX – Last March, 14th-seeded Grand Canyon University faced a demanding first-round test against third-seeded Gonzaga. It was Bryce Drew’s second NCAA tournament appearance in his third season as Lopes head coach, and GCU had momentum after winning four straight games to capture its second Western Athletic Conference tournament title.
Despite a close first half, the Lopes were overwhelmed by the Bulldogs in the second half and fell 82-70. Gonzaga wore down GCU with a 14-point advantage in the paint and on second-chance points, and a 14-rebound advantage on the glass.
The Lopes embraced a 3-point shooting identity last season, finishing the year ranked 13th nationally in percentage (38.3%). Despite the team nearing its season average with a 9-for-24 night, Gonzaga beat GCU at its own game behind an efficient 7-for-15 display from deep. Even with the loss, it was another positive step in the program’s continuous rise toward national prominence.
Drew seemingly learned from that opportunity in his offseason pursuit of a new roster, and now awaits the new season’s Nov. 1 start against Embry-Riddle with anticipation.
“We worked really hard in the spring to try to put together this roster,” Drew said after the Lopes’ first practice Tuesday. “Definitely went first for experience to try to get players who had been around, played in a lot of good college basketball games. And then I think length was something that we thought we needed to add, and (I’m) really excited about the pieces that we did add that bring a lot of the length to our team.”
After losing four of his top-five 3-point shooters to graduation and the transfer portal, Drew shifted his approach. Of the nine newcomers on GCU’s roster, seven measure 6-foot-5 and above.
The Lopes also brought in four transfers from Power 5 schools, featuring Louisville transfer forward Sydney Curry and former Arizona State forward Duke Brennan. Curry brings a rugged 6-foot-8, 270-pound frame that has Drew prepared with replacement backboards handy due to the senior’s rim-rattling capabilities.
Brennan is transitioning from being a “hard-hat lunch pail guy” off the bench with the Sun Devils to a more expanded role with the Lopes. While the Chandler native intends to bring the same energy from his freshman season, Brennan says his role this year will allow the mental game to come easier.
“I tended to foul a lot at ASU,” Brennan said. “So being able to slow down, understand my role, play more meaningful minutes – I can slow down as a player, maybe score more, maybe get into my moves more. But a lot of my aspects won’t change, but being able to think at a mentally slower pace will be better for me.”
After the mass exodus and subsequent arrival of new pieces, GCU only returns two starters in junior guard Ray Harrison and sixth-year redshirt senior forward Gabe McGlothan. The All-WAC honorees were the top two scorers from last season, and each respectfully led the team in assist and rebounding categories as well. The Lopes also have two-time All-WAC senior guard Jovan Blacksher Jr. returning, who was named the WAC Preseason Player of the Year before suffering a season-ending ACL injury 12 games into last season. Blacksher – who sustained the injury at Sam Houston on Jan. 5 – did not participate in practice Tuesday but Drew anticipates him to be ready to play by opening night.
GCU will now attempt to blend the scoring punch with the newfound size and physicality. McGlothan compared playing opponents this season to “going to war,” while recognizing that the additions only add to the existing expectations.
“We’re going to battle, and knowing everybody has that mindset with their aggressiveness and toughness, it’s going to look different,” McGlothan said. “It could be bumps and bruises, all this stuff, but we’re fighting for banners up there. That’s our standard.”
The Lopes’ length also extends from the paint to the perimeter, featuring 6-foot-9 Oregon transfer forward Lök Wur and 6-foot-7 Depaul transfer guard Tyon Grant-Foster. McGlothan hopes the unit’s long arms can be active in the gaps and passing lanes and kickstart transition offense. Last season, GCU ranked 250th nationally in fast-break points (7.67).
“The pressure will help us play fast,” McGlothan said. “Guys can do a lot of different things on the wings. It’s going to be hard for a lot of smaller teams because we have height and length all along the board.”
McGlothan and Harrison have grown into leaders, with Drew saying their presence has helped the newcomers adjust to GCU’s system.
They will have to adapt and adjust quickly, as the fourth-year head coach stated that the Lopes’ non-conference schedule this year is statistically the toughest in program history. The slate is beefed by a Dec. 5 home matchup with national champion runner-up San Diego State.
Even with the restocked roster and a challenging start to the season, the goal to win at a high level isn’t dampened but rather heightened, as McGlothan noted.
“We want to play here in the Final Four in Phoenix,” Harrison said, almost casually.
Before the Lopes faced the Bulldogs last March, Gonzaga coach Mark Few compared GCU’s program trajectory to his own. Now entering his 25th season at Gonzaga, Few recognized the gradual growth and passionate fan base as part of the Bulldogs’ path to becoming a national powerhouse each season.
The master defeated the pupil in that matchup. After small strides up this point, perhaps the new-look Lopes are ready to take the next step and wreak havoc on a national level.