Dan Majerle’s Grand Canyon team is no stranger to tough opponents or environments.
Already this season, the Antelopes took on the Duke Blue Devils in Durham and hosted the Louisville Cardinals, losing both games but gaining valuable experience in the process.
Then last week, a few days after falling to Louisville by just nine, they knocked off San Diego State by a score of 76-72. The team followed that victory with a 73-69 win over the University of Illinois at Chicago, and now heads to Tucson for a battle with No. 19 Arizona in the McKale Center.
Good times for the ‘Lopes, who sit at 5-4 on the season.
“We’ve got a lot of guys who have overachieved right now and have played hard and our guys just want to get better,” Majerle told Doug and Wolf on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM Wednesday morning. “It’s been a great year for us because we’ve been able to play at Duke — we hung in the game with Duke for probably the first 17, 18 minutes, had a bad stretch — and then when Louisville came in we were winning by a point at halftime and hung in with them and then beat San Diego State being shorthanded.
“Our guys just want to continue to get better and better, and our goal is to be a top-25 team. We’re a long ways away from that, but we keep making better steps and better strides to getting there.”
Majerle, who is in his fourth season leading the program, said the goal is to win the Western Athletic Conference, and though his team will not be eligible for the NCAA Tournament until next season, topping the conference would be a sign that they are where they want to be.
While pulling off an upset in Tucson would go a long way toward helping the perception of what is happening in Phoenix, it would not do anything for their conference title hopes.
“This is just another test for us,” Majerle said of the Wildcats. “We have a great opportunity to play an in-state school that’s got a great reputation, and is a top-20 team.”
As GCU’s coach, Majerle has guided the team to a 64-41 record, including a 27-7 mark last season. The ‘Lopes have finished second in the WAC twice under his stewardship, and now for the first time will be taking on Sean Miller’s Arizona squad.
At 8-2, the Wildcats are again seen as one of the country’s better teams. But, like Grand Canyon, they do not come into this game without some warts. In GCU’s most recent game, just eight players took the floor; in Arizona’s 79-60 road win over Missouri last Saturday, they also used eight players, though one of them — Tyler Trillo — logged just a single minute.
“They’re a lot like us — in one aspect, they’ve lost a lot of people to injury and guys just not playing too, they’re not very deep at all, but they’re really long and they’re talented,” Majerle said. “They’ve got a kid, Markkanen, who’s a 7-footer from Finland who actually played with, we’ve got a kid named Fiifi Aidoo who’s from Finland also, is a freshman guard — those two played together. But this Markkanen kid that they have, a 7-footer, he’s a lottery pick, a very skilled 7-foot guy who can really shoot it, put it on the floor. He’s something special.”
Markkanen is averaging a team-best 16.8 points and 7.1 rebounds per game, though is coming off an eight-point effort against the Tigers.
Majerle also pointed out fellow freshman Kobi Simmons, a 6-foot-5 guard who is averaging 12.1 points per game scored 19 against Missouri, in noting the Wildcats bring a good amount of size to the table.
“So, they’re extremely talented, they’re athletic, they can shoot it,” he said. “Really good defensively, so they’re good, they’re just shorthanded because of all the injuries they have. So we’re going to have our hands full with those guys.”
Tip-off is scheduled for 9 p.m.