PHOENIX – Grand Canyon University men’s basketball is used to being overlooked and underappreciated.
However, with a 24-6 overall record and 10-3 mark in the Western Athletic Conference, the Antelopes believe it might be time for people to start paying attention.
“We’re writing such a great story today,” coach Dan Majerle said. “You can look back at all the teams that transition from Division I and Division II and in their third year there hasn’t been a record like this, not even close.”
The Lopes began the shift from Division II to Division I in the 2013-2014 academic year, and won’t be eligible for postseason play until the 2017-2018 season. But GCU received a vote in an Associated Press Top 25 poll for the first time during the week of Jan. 25. While it was only one vote, it amounted to a vote of confidence for Majerle’s up-and-coming program.
“It was neat that we got that top-25 vote,” said Joshua Braun, a redshirt sophomore guard. “We’re hoping to continue to win, continue to get more votes.”
Ryan Majerle, a redshirt senior guard and nephew of Dan Majerle, shared the sentiment.
The top-25 vote was “really exciting because Coach Majerle talks about that all the time and that the goal is to be a top-25 team (like) a Gonzaga, Wichita State,” Ryan Majerle said. “Those guys are always in the top-25 so getting a vote, that means a lot to us.”
Coach Majerle reminded his team during practice that same week that no one in their third year of transition to Division I had even finished with a record over .500.
The two other schools currently making the leap are University of Massachusetts-Lowell and Abilene Christian University. Like GCU, both are in their third year of transition to Division I. UMass-Lowell completed its season last month with a record of 11-18 while Abilene Christian entered play Thursday at 13-16.
Meanwhile, the ‘Lopes, in their third year of an NCAA-required four-year transition period, were the fastest team in Division I to 19 victories this season.
The team improved on last year’s 17-15 record and is currently ranked No. 17 in the CollegeInsider.com Mid-Major Top 25, but because the ‘Lopes are in the transition phase, their NCAA postseason options are limited until the 2017-2018 season. However, the ‘Lopes are eligible to participate the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament.
But without the opportunity to play in the NCAA Tournament, National Invitation Tournament or even the WAC tournament, the program’s ultimate goals remain on hold.
“It’s hard,” Dan Majerle said. “You know, it’s going quick in one sense but at a snail’s pace in the other sense. It’s extremely difficult. You can’t really have an end goal this year. You know, if we were playing for something really substantial, a WAC tournament, an NCAA bid, this time of year our guys would be really ramped up.
“It’s tough to keep them motivated because they’re not really sure what’s at the end. You have to look beyond that and what we really want to become.”
Dan Majerle, who arrived at GCU in March 2013 after leaving his position as an assistant coach with the Phoenix Suns, has instilled selflessness, confidence and synergy to the team. He prides himself on not having his players do anything that he cannot do himself.
Ryan Majerle said it shows on the team.
“I’ve been lucky to be around a lot of great guys but I think this team, there’s something different. It’s the closest team I’ve ever been on,” Ryan Majerle said. “I don’t see any selfishness between us. If we win, every single person is happy regardless how we do and that’s really cool to have.”
Braun credits Dan Majerle for the team’s competitive attitude.
“He has high expectations and high hopes for us,” Braun said. “He pushes us to the limits to make sure that we give him our best every day. He brings us out here and makes sure we compete and compete and compete and that prepares us for sure.”
There is no lack of appreciation for the team’s sudden success on campus. GCU Arena has become the place to be for students.
While the team brings the heat on the court, GCU’s student supporters, the Havocs, show their love for the school in the stands.
Comprised of more than 2,000 students, the Havocs fill nearly half of GCU Arena for every home game with traditions and spirit that infect the rest of the campus.
“The Havocs are awesome. They bring it everyday,” Braun said. “They bring the energy and they bring the noise, and it is just a fun crowd to play in front of. We love them.”
After coming to GCU from St. Louis University, graduate forward Grandy Glaze was surprised by the atmosphere the Havocs bring to the arena.
“The biggest party in college basketball,” Glaze said. “I’ve never been a part of something like this. The Havocs are huge for us. They’re like our sixth man.”
Dan Majerle credits the Havocs with pumping up the team before games and bringing support to the program.
“There’s a lot of places that you go on the road and it’s not really a home-court advantage (for the opponent) because they don’t have the fans,” he said. “They bring the energy to our arena and that’s a true home-court advantage for us.”
As the school population grows, so do the Havocs. Back in 2012 when Havocs president Brandon Kaiser began at GCU, the organization was nothing like it is today.
“It was my freshman year and me and a few buddies went to every game, painted our face, just got, like, super crazy,” Kaiser said. “I heard about one of the leadership positions opening my sophomore year, so I just applied and ended up getting it.”
It was then that he began getting more involved in the group, eventually becoming president.
Steve Hunsaker, vice president of the Havocs and game-day coordinator, visited GCU as a senior in high school and met Kaiser and Brennan Williams, the Havocs current marketing director.
“That was back when there was like 20 kids in the student section at some games,” Hunsaker said. “It was just them in the front row, just going crazy, and it was just something that I really liked.”
Going crazy and “getting weird” is part of the Havocs way. Previously going by the name, “The Monsoon,” the group felt the name wasn’t exactly what they wanted to portray.
“We wanted a more destructive part of the monsoon so you know the kids who are really crazy and committed,” Kaiser said. “The director of spirit programs and some students just named us the Havocs.”
Abbie Ploeser, a junior leader of the Havocs who works on their marketing, agreed.
“It was the coolest thing I had ever been a part of,” Ploeser said. “There were hundreds of kids that were there for the same cause. And the energy was just unmatched.”
The group has recently expanded to work with the community. Havocs with Heart started this year to help the community surrounding GCU, whether it be the homeless or children facing life-threatening illnesses.
This year, the group partnered with five nonprofit organizations including HopeKids and the Phoenix Rescue Mission. Havocs with Heart also hosted a prom at GCU Arena for Best Buddies International, a non-profit dedicated to providing one-on-one friendship and support to people with intellectual developmental disabilities.
“The Best Buddies Prom was super fun and it was really cool that it was on campus and they kind of got a taste of it,” Ploeser said. “It was in the arena actually, so that’s totally our element and (we) just sort of transformed it. We chaperoned and handed out popcorn and danced with the kids and took pictures with them and that was really fun.”
With so much involvement in the organization, it can sometimes be hard for Havocs leaders to balance their responsibilities with the Havocs and their education.
“I’ve had to make a calendar for the first time in my life and set my life in order because it just got so overwhelming,” Hunsaker said.
Williams said he’s using what he’s learning in the school’s sports marketing program and applying it to the Havocs and their mission.
“I can almost have this as a case study and it has been really fun,” Williams said. “The students are super engaging, honestly, and it’s the ideal demographic with the social media, Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat, so that’s kind of been fun. So, that’s been unique in the sense that it’s for the students.”
With Kaiser and Williams graduating this spring, new leadership will take their place for next season. However, their support of GCU and appreciation for the what the basketball program has achieved will go beyond graduation.
“I’ll be here. I already signed up for season tickets here, but I think I’m a little ways back on the list,” Williams said. “It’s frustrating because you know you want to be there. I think the cool thing about being a part of it for four years is knowing what’s coming after. I will definitely be tuning in.”