PHOENIX - Playing in its first season at the NCAA Division I level and led by a first-year head coach, it sure seemed like Grand Canyon's men's basketball team was in for a challenging 2013-14 season.
But it seems that anyone who thought that way has underestimated former Phoenix Suns guard and new GCU head coach Dan Majerle, the sellout crowd that makes an incredible amount of noise at each home game, and the toughness that these Antelopes have displayed in their first 22 Division I games.
GCU, which joined the D-I Western Athletic Conference this season, fell short to conference-leading Utah Valley last night to snap a four-game winning streak. But after leading the Lopes to an 11-11 overall record and a 6-3 mark in the WAC in his first year as a head coach at any level, Majerle said he's pleased with the path of the program.
"As a coach, you're never satisfied, but I am satisfied," he said after GCU's 79-68 loss to UVU. "Nobody really thought we would do much this year."
Despite the loss, the atmosphere inside the state-of-the-art, 5,000-seat GCU Arena on Thursday night was phenomenal – especially when the Antelopes turned a double-digit deficit into a tie game late in the second half, bringing the crowd to its feet and sending the decibel level into ear-plug territory.
"They've been great. This is truly a home-court advantage," Majerle said. "It's affordable. It's fun. I think our guys play hard and they're enjoyable to watch. This is a great place to watch a game."
The Antelopes' impressive first season under Majerle has been spearheaded by two of their team captains, senior center Killian Larson and junior guard Jerome Garrison. Larson, who scored a team-high 24 points on Thursday night, is averaging 15.9 points and a WAC-leading 10.9 rebounds per game. Garrison, who scored 19 points and hit some clutch shots to help GCU rally in the second half, is averaging 15.6 points per contest.
"Jerome plays 40 minutes a night. He plays extremely hard and he's done it all year," Majerle said. "And Killian has been a workhorse. He's a senior who knows how to get in there. Those are two of my guys who we rely on heavily every game."
Thursday night's game at GCU, a private Christian school with a student body of 40,000, was part of a larger outing fit for families and hardcore basketball fans alike.
In an routine reminiscent of the Phoenix Suns' Gorilla, there was a pre-game dunk demonstration, complete with trampolines, led by the Lopes' mascots, Thunder and Bolt. The noisy GCU student section nicknamed the Havocs entered the arena just minutes before game time, jumping in unison to energize the rest of the crowd. And after the game, the Christian band Mercy Me entertained spectators in a free concert just outside the arena.
There were even celebrity sightings, including Suns point guard Goran Dragic, former Suns owner Jerry Colangelo, long-time Suns broadcaster Al McCoy and former NFL Pro-Bowler and Kansas City Chiefs kicker Nick Lowery, who conducted the GCU band during a timeout in the second half.
"I tell people: It's not just a basketball game; it's an event," Majerle said. "It's something you have to see."
As D-I newbies, GCU won't be eligible for the NCAA Tournament until the 2017-18 season. But if this season is any indication, Majerle will have the Lopes ready to compete for that tournament bid when their time comes.
"To be 6-3 in the conference (in our first D-I season), I think that's good," Majerle said. "Being in Division 2 last year, it's a transition period. It's hard. But our guys have really pushed themselves."