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Grand Canyon University sets sights on WAC title in year three under Dan Majerle

Grand Canyon coach Dan Majerle reacts to a call during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game against New Mexico, Tuesday, Dec. 23, 2014, in Phoenix. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

PHOENIX — In its first two seasons on the Division-I level, Grand Canyon University basketball has finished third and second, respectively, in the Western Athletic Conference.

And each season finished with an appearance in the Tournament.

The standard, though, is much, much higher.

“Our expectations are to continue to get better, fight for the conference championship,” head coach Dan Majerle said. “Our whole goal is to be, when this four-year probation thing is over, that we’re hitting the ground running and we’re in consideration to play in the (NCAA) Tournament every year; and for us that’s to win the WAC and to win the WAC Tournament, and that’s our main goal.”

GCU is halfway through a four-year probationary period in its transition to full-time Division-I status, making them ineligible for the NCAA Tournament until 2017-18.

Season three for Majerle begins Friday with the first practice.

The roster includes the top two scorers and leading rebounder from last season’s 17-win team along with 10 first- or second-year players.

“My big mantra this year is that we have more talent this year so every practice is going to be a challenge. There’s going to be competition,” Majerle said. “Whoever is playing well in practice and whoever gets it done in the day-in and day-out basis will start and play.”

GCU is expected to lean heavily on senior point guard DeWayne Russell and redshirt sophomore Josh Braun.

Russell led the ‘Lopes in scoring (14.2 points per game), while Braun was second (11.8) and grabbed a team-best 4.9 rebounds.

Braun will need to “reinvent himself” this season, according to Majerle, because after playing the four a year ago, he will see his court time more on the perimeter, at either shooting guard or small forward.

“I’m looking forward to that opportunity and that challenge,” Braun said.

GCU can afford the position switch because of frontcourt help in the way of transfers Grandy Glaze (St. Louis), Uros Ljeskovic (Coastal Carolina) and Keonta Vernon (College of Southern Idaho).

All three are at least 6-foot-6 and “are kind of older and bigger, more physical, stronger, so we’re able to battle inside,” Majerle said. “Last year, we just had no inside presence and this year, I think, with Boubacar (Toure, a 6-foot-11 redshirt freshman center), Grandy, Uros and Keonta, we’ll be able to battle more inside rebounding wise and scoring some easy baskets.”

Added Braun, “We’ll have more guys that can rebound. We’ll have a few guys down low that will be able to help rebound. Last year we lacked in the rebounding department a little bit, so this year, I think, we’ve improved in that area. You’ll see a definite change.”

Once again this season, GCU loaded up its non-conference schedule.

“We’re going to schedule the best possible teams that we can,” Majerle said. “I think that really helps in recruiting. It’s hard recruiting right now because all these kids — high school kids and junior college kids — want to go to the Tournament, and we’re not eligible for another two years, so one of our pushes is we’re going to play a great non-conference schedule.”

Road trips are planned to Louisville and San Diego State, while home dates are set with Central Michigan and Hampton.

Last season, the ‘Lopes won 13 games at home, including a signature victory over New Mexico at GCU Arena.

“This place is crazy,” Russell said of an arena that now seats 7,000. “When the ‘Havocs’ (student section) come in, it’s a special place. There’s not too many places in the country that’s like this. I’m just happy and privileged to play in front of these people.”

The public’s first look at the 2015-16 GCU squad is Nov. 5 and an exhibition matchup with New Mexico Highlands.

Games then start to count Nov. 13 against Portland State.

“The improvement is we’re really athletic, and we’re really deep this year. We’re more talented this year,” Russell said. “I don’t want to say what we can do, but I do feel like we’re going to have a good chance at winning the WAC this year. We’re athletic, we’re big, we’re deep; I think we’re going to have a good year.”

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