Dan Majerle is leading upstart Grand Canyon to unforeseen heights

Grand Canyon State coach Dan Majerle, left, yells as official Nate Harris calls a foul on his team during the second half of an NCAA college basketball game against San Diego State on Friday, Dec. 18, 2015, in San Diego. Grand Canyon won, 52-45. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

You may not have heard of them, but you will soon. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

(RD)–Call the media relations office at Grand Canyon University, and you’ll likely get no answer.

Maybe the people there are superstitious, maybe they’re too busy handing out informational brochures, or maybe they’re just afraid of articles like this, whether they’re fair or not. (Whatever the case, they didn’t return our emails or phone calls).

Ask a typical college basketball fan about Grand Canyon, and you probably won’t get an answer, either.

Most fans aren’t aware that the Antelopes are: a) a Division 1 basketball team, b) coached by former NBA All-Star Dan Majerle, c) a pretty damn good Division 1 basketball team, and d) maybe the NCAA’s most controversial school.

The Christian, for-profit university based in Phoenix made its foray into the world of D-1 basketball in 2013. Its announcement was followed immediately by an angry letter from Pac-12 commissioner Larry Scott, who argued on behalf of the conference that schools with Wall Street shareholders shouldn’t be in business with the NCAA.

Grand Canyon supporters argue that big-time college athletics programs aren’t exactly non-profit, either, with coaches and athletic directors reeling in millions. At least GCU is up-front about its intentions, and because it’s for-profit, doesn’t get tax-exempt status.

In response to all of this, the NCAA did what the NCAA does (nothing), and now, two years later, the Antelopes are one of the nation’s up-and-coming programs. They’re 13-2, with wins over Central Michigan, Houston, Marshall and San Diego State:

They’ve got three players averaging in double figures in scoring, including 6-4 guard Joshua Braun (team-leading 15.2), and 6-6 forward Grandy Glaze (13.6 ppg, 7 rpg), a graduate transfer from Saint Louis. Freshman Dominic Magee  (11 ppg) was a top-30 recruit nationally, and committed to Memphis last season before transferring to GCU.

It’s no surprise that Majerle is getting players. He’s got plenty of NBA connections, and is revered as a legend in the Phoenix area. Drive around downtown, and you’ll find billboards of “Thunder Dan” pitching everything from fine-cooked steaks to plumbers, which makes him a perfect fit at intrepid GCU.

The 50-year-old says he wants to help Grand Canyon become “the next Gonzaga or Wichita State or Butler,” and with stockholders lining up to make money when it does, there’s a good chance they could be. As Sports on Earth’s Will Leitch found out, the school’s basketball arena is a modern-looking, LED-screen-having, Papa John’s pizza-hocking, corporate powerhouse, complete with ubiquitous kiosks where you can learn more information about Grand Canyon University.

The arena only sits 7,000, but that’s enough for a school with an on-campus enrollment of 10,600 (including just 21 grad students). It’s also plenty for a member of the putrid Western Athletic Conference, a once-proud league that has been decimated by conference realignment.

AP Photo/Gregory Bull

At 13-2, GCU has already established itself as one of the best programs in the WAC. (AP Photo/Gregory Bull)

Older college hoops fans remember when the WAC was home to UNLV, BYU and Utah. Now, it’s got members Chicago State, Utah Valley, Cal State-Bakersfield, Missouri-Kansas City, UT-Rio Grand Valley and Seattle U, which also recently went Division 1, joining Grand Canyon and juggernaut New Mexico State. It’s safe to say the WAC is one of the worst conferences in college basketball, and that doesn’t hurt GCU as it tries to gain its D-1 footing.

Last year, the ‘Lopes finished a very respectable 17-14, 8-6 in league play. This year, they’ll enter conference play at 13-2, with losses to Louisville and Nebraska-Omaha. If it weren’t for an NCAA rule prohibiting teams from qualifying for the postseason until their fifth year in Division 1, the Antelopes would challenge New Mexico State for this year’s NCAA Tournament bid.

By the time 2018 rolls around, Majerle might have Grand Canyon on the verge of not only the NCAA Tournament, but the Top 25. That’s certainly the plan, in Phoenix as well as on Wall Street, where stockholders stand to share the NCAA’s $1.6 million prize for making the Big Dance.

Call them intrepid, call them controversial, call them bad for business.

But after the NCAA opened the door to competition to this for-profit, predominantly online school, there’s really only one name it’s earned on the court: winners.


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