College basketball returns with heightened expectations for GCU

Nov 6, 2018, 9:06 PM | Updated: Nov 7, 2018, 7:09 am
(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)...
(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)
(AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

The Valley is a fiefdom of frontrunners. A football town in numbers. A NBA city at heart.

We adore big events and outdoors parties. Our narcissism and people-watching skills shatter attendance records, from the Cactus League to the Waste Management Phoenix Open.

Do yourself a favor in the coming months:

Attend a basketball game at Grand Canyon University, where the rabid crowd support is always the primary attraction, where the audience never takes a night off. It’s a spectacle that can’t be missed, representing everything we are not as a major-league sports market.

“Our next step is to find a way to get to the NCAA Tournament,” GCU head coach Dan Majerle said. “And we’re going to do that. Hopefully it’ll be this year. But we have to remember this is a process. And what we’ve been able to do in five years is relatively amazing.”

Alas, success is also a relative term in the Valley. College basketball has arrived, but our market remains slippery and saturated, a mudslide of mixed allegiances. Transients have earned the right to scoff at the home teams. Only the Suns get a hall pass and hometown patience. Nothing is fair around here.

The Antelopes are charting a different path. Students camped out the three days to best attend Midnight Madness. In October, former Louisville head coach Rick Pitino tweeted his ongoing love for the ambitious Antelopes, ranking GCU as the sixth best home-court advantage in college basketball.

Say what you want about the exiled and greasy Pitino, who is toxic proof that power corrupts nearly everyone in college basketball. He’s also right about Majerle’s program.

I’ve covered the sport from Durham to Westwood, courtside from Indianapolis to Tucson. It doesn’t get better than the gameday vibe at GCU. It’s a revolution fueled from the inside, before the banners arrive. Which makes it even more impressive.

Except Majerle’s team is also 0-for-1 at March Madness, missing out in his first season as a tournament-eligible Division I program. The Antelopes also lost their season debut on Tuesday, losing a close game on the road to a quality opponent in South Dakota State. And with heightened expectations in 2018-19, they can all hear the clock ticking.

“This is probably going to be our most talented team,” Majerle said. “And our hardest year.”

It’s nearly impossible for a college program to reach exalted status in a region like ours.

The Cardinals have built a deep well of trust. The Coyotes have turned a corner. Our new soccer team will play for a championship on Thursday, potentially kicking its way into a MSL franchise.

Meanwhile, the Suns own the Valley, a franchise that put a desert outpost on the map. And if Robert Sarver ever lucked into a championship, he would become our hero overnight.

But there’s something novel happening on a grass-roots level:

GCU has a high-octane triumvirate in Majerle, Brian Mueller and Valley icon Jerry Colangelo, the greatest asset possible for a nascent basketball program. On-campus enrollment has soared from 4,000 to 21,000 students in recent years, regaining a non-profit status that removes all stigmas attached to the university.

ASU has real momentum. Ray Anderson might’ve been right about Herm Edwards and the football program all along, and Bobby Hurley might be even better. But they can no longer ignore GCU on principle or on the schedule.

Meanwhile, Arizona is the reigning king of college hoops in Arizona, a program on the mend but not out of the woods just yet.

Are they clean? Are they victims? Are they worth your applause? Are they the best our state has to offer in this terrible cesspool of college basketball?

Before you pick a horse, go see a game at GCU. Then tell me who you’re betting on.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@bonneville.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

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College basketball returns with heightened expectations for GCU