GCU men’s basketball seeks to solidify legacy with first NCAA Tournament win Friday against Saint Mary’s

GCU junior guard Collin Moore smiles after a big dunk in the Lopes’ 89-74 win in the 2024 WAC Tournament championship against UT Arlington at Orleans Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Dominic Contini/Cronkite News)

PHOENIX — Grand Canyon men’s basketball won the Western Athletic Conference three of the last four years, but the program believes the time is now to take the next step and win its first NCAA Tournament game.

The Antelopes won their first WAC championship in 2021, which was monumental as it was their first tournament appearance since the program jumped up to Division I in 2013. Only two players from that squad are on this year’s team: senior guard Jovan Blacksher Jr. and redshirt senior forward Gabe McGlothan.

Blacksher Jr. and McGlothan came to GCU to build the foundation, and now they are about to leave the program better than they found it. However, the job is not finished as No. No. 5 Saint Mary’s awaits the No. 12 seed Friday in the first round of the West region in Spokane, Washington.

Plenty of talk will center on how GCU fares against a fellow mid-major as the Gaels compete in the West Coast Conference. The 2024 tournament marks the second straight year the Antelopes will play a WCC representative after losing to Gonzaga 82-70 in the first round last year. Another topic of conversation is the game’s location in Spokane, the home of the Gonzaga Bulldogs, and how GCU might get some more support with SMC playing in its conference rival’s arena.

Those tidbits are noteworthy, but the important part to realize is that a win Friday means a lot more than just advancing to the next round. Instead, it’s indicative of the impact Blacksher Jr. and McGlothan have made on the program and the progress they have made in their own lives.

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Take Blacksher Jr., who attended Shadow Mountain High School in Phoenix and played all five of his collegiate seasons at GCU. The senior guard is the spark plug the team needs in high-pressure games like the WAC Championship and the SMC game.

“Those types of moments get me going because I bring energy,” Blacksher Jr. said. “I’m good on defense. I like making plays when it’s — I wouldn’t say matters — just not as noticeable. Those who play and go there with (coach) Bryce Drew and do that (win the WAC Championship), it was special.”

Blacksher Jr.’s energetic leadership as a veteran with his energy is a bonus against the Gaels, but more impressive is his performance after tearing his ACL last season. Even though he has not made as big of an impact on the floor since returning, only averaging 14.9 minutes per game after the injury, McGlothan sees how his teammate has responded from the lengthy absence and what it means for him off the court.

“’I’d say it’s even bigger than that (Blacksher Jr. playing his best basketball),” McGlothan said. “Everyone’s like, ‘Oh, it’s good to have Javon back,’ but truly, from the perspective that I see, I see him just growing way past that. The time that he had a bunch of adversity hit him with the injury, it grew him up a lot as just a person.

“To see him having success on the court, but then also him as a man growing and that all mixing together. It’s like we’re getting the best of Jovan and I’m excited for his future. That’s what I see.”

Like Blacksher Jr., McGlothan went to school in Arizona, winning a state title at Basha High School in Gilbert. His collegiate career started at Southeast Missouri State, but he returned to the Valley after one year and has left his imprint on the team by playing in all but one game and averaging 13 points per game this season.

The fact that both of GCU’s leaders are homegrown speaks volumes about the program Drew has been building ever since he took over in 2020.

“They provide great leadership all year,” Drew said. “Just knowing our program and our culture. What the expectations are here. What the goals are for our program and they’ve pretty much set this out the summer when they all got here.

“The nice thing is you have some more experienced players. Some older players that they realize this (is) some of their last time around and this is your only opportunity to play an NCAA tournament. I think all that stuff just helps add to our determination.”

There is always motivation to win in the NCAA Tournament, but Blacksher Jr. and McGlothan have added motivation with it being their last chance at a win in the Big Dance. They have that sour taste in their mouth from losing to Gonzaga in the first round last year, especially with Blacksher Jr. unable to play that game with the injury.

GCU, which flew under the radar last season as a 14-seed, did not have lofty expectations to advance, but this year’s squad is different. With a 29-4 record and a win over San Diego State, this Lopes’ team is one of the top mid-majors and well-positioned as a popular 5-12 upset pick.

The time has come. This is the week everybody anticipated.

Expect the GCU student section to travel for the Lopes' first-round NCAA Tournament matchup Friday against Saint Mary's. (Photo by Dominic Contini/Cronkite News)

Expect the GCU student section to travel for the Lopes’ first-round NCAA Tournament matchup Friday against Saint Mary’s. (Photo by Dominic Contini/Cronkite News)

“The experience helps,” Drew said. “I think they know what to expect. I think the goals were a little bit different this year. This year again, it was to win, but also to get the tournament and you know play as well as we can. This is kind of the week we’ve been waiting for since last spring. As a coach, you’re just excited to get out there and get this opportunity.”

“As this team has gone before, we’re back-to-back (WAC champions), so that’s a great feeling,” McGlothan added. “I know it just speaks to what we’re growing here at GCU, but I think the maturity is showing through this team as well. Usually winning the WAC championship is great. We did what we wanted to do during the season. But this year, it’s like we still have more to give and so that’s kind of the motivation that we’ve been carrying throughout this week.

“Even after the championship, being able to have confetti fall. Cut down the nets. That’s great. You go on to the next one.”

The next one will be difficult as SMC is 25th in Division I in rebounding, whereas GCU is just outside the top 50. The Gaels have a true center with senior Mitchell Saxen and the Antelopes play two forwards in the frontcourt with McGlothan and sophomore forward Duke Brennan, so the battle on the boards will be important to watch.

SMC will not be at full strength as sophomore forward Joshua Jefferson injured his knee in February and is out for the rest of the season, so the battle of attrition benefits GCU and could be the reason if the Lopes get that coveted first tournament victory.

March Madness is a time for Cinderellas to dance until the music stops. Anything can happen during the next three weeks. If the Antelopes take down the Gaels, they will play the winner of the No. 4 Alabama vs. No. 13 College of Charleston on Sunday.

While the Final Four will be held April 6-8 at State Farm Stadium in Glendale, the Antelopes are not looking that far ahead just yet. Instead, Drew’s team is looking to cement themselves in the pantheon of GCU lore, and that chance starts Friday.

“When I first came here, I wanted to build a legacy,” Blacksher Jr. “Be legendary here. I think that (being back in the NCAA Tournament) solidifies that.”

Justin de Haas(he/him/his)
Sports Reporter, Phoenix

Justin de Haas expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism. de Haas has interned as a reporter for the Walnut Creek Crawdads of the California Collegiate League and reported on the Arizona State women’s soccer and lacrosse teams for the Walter Cronkite Sports Network.

Sports Digital Producer, Phoenix

Dominic Contini expects to graduate in May 2024 with a bachelor’s degree in sports journalism and minor in digital audiences. Contini aspires to be a content creator and has interned for the social media teams of ESPN, Sports Illustrated, Sporting News, Fiesta Bowl, Arizona Super Bowl Host Committee and Arizona State Athletics.