PHOENIX — With Selection Sunday and March Madness approaching, college basketball teams dream of hearing their names called.
Unless they’re ineligible to compete in postseason play.
That’s the case for Grand Canyon University, which just finished its fourth and final season with postseason ineligibility, a reality prompted by its jump from Division II to Division I. The Antelopes will watch from afar as the Western Athletic Conference begins tournament play Wednesday in Las Vegas. The winner secures an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament.
For a team that has won at least 20 games each of the last two seasons, ineligibility could be discouraging. Coach Dan Majerle doesn’t see it this way.
“We’re used to it. I mean we won 27 games last year and we weren’t able to,” he said. “It’s not frustrating because we understood that’s what we were getting into.”
Guard Joshua Braun has a different perspective.
“It can be frustrating for sure,” Braun said. “You want to have a shot at tournament play, playing against the other teams in the WAC, and you know everybody wants to play in the NCAA Tournament.”
Without postseason play being an end goal, winning the WAC regular season title becomes an emphasis.
“Each season, we gotta kind of look at the WAC regular conference play as kind of our own tournament,” Braun said. “So we find ways to motivate ourselves and keep ourselves up.”
“It’s kind of tough because we know we can’t go to the tournament so like if we drop a game or something like that… it’s just like ‘damn, we might’ve messed our whole season up for this one game,’ so it sucks,” guard DeWayne Russell said.
If the Antelopes advance to the NCAA Tournament after the 2017-18 season, they wouldn’t be the first to do so in their first season of eligibility.
Since 1950, seven teams have accomplished the feat. Northern Kentucky became the eighth on Tuesday by winning the Horizon League Tournament final.
Majerle is looking forward to next season.
“We really want to make it our first year,” he said. “We’ve made great strides towards that. We’ve prepared hard every year because we knew that this was going to get here quick.
“We do understand that next year is bigger and it’s going to be, I don’t want to say pressure, it’s just going to be more anxiety because it has finally come. This is what we have been working for.”
Unfortunately for senior Russell, there will be no tournament or no next year.
“Yeah, it definitely hurts,” he said near the end of the season. “Right now, it’s kind of a sad moment. (I’m) a little bit down right now because I know it’s my last couple of times with these guys and with the coaches and everything like that.”
The relationships he made outweighed the lack of postseason play.
“For me it was just like the most important thing is I’d get to meet the people that I met, like coach Majerle and (sports mogul Jerry) Colangelo and all those guys,” Russell said.
Majerle said Russell did a great job of leading the program and he is happy he chose to play at Grand Canyon after transferring from Northern Arizona.
“I’m glad he came here,” Majerle said. “It’s just like the other guys before him. They knew they were building something that you know, in 10, 15 years when they look back and we’re very very successful and going to the tournament, they can always say that they were there and it was the building blocks for something special.”
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