Dan Majerle: Grand Canyon 'not intimidated' by Arizona Wildcats

Posted at 7:04 PM, Dec 13, 2016
and last updated 2016-12-13 23:40:53-05

In their fourth year at the NCAA Division I level, the Grand Canyon Antelopes coach have been put through the ringer.

It's all been by design.

GCU coach Dan Majerle, whose Antelopes have exceeded expectations at the D-I level, has scheduled games against powerhouses Duke, Kentucky and Indiana (among others) since last season.

GCU came up short in each of those games -- but Majerle scheduled them in order to give his team an idea of what it will take to become a top-25-caliber team, and to toughen them up for future games in hostile environments.

Majerle expects that experience to come in handy as the Lopes prepare to face No. 19 Arizona at McKale Center, one of the nation's toughest places to play. The game will begin at 9 p.m. AZ time Wednesday and will be broadcast on ESPNU.

"We're not intimidated by any environment," Majerle said. "We've played at Duke, at Kentucky, and we play in front of a great crowd, so our guys enjoy that. We know we're playing a great team and that's going to be the biggest thing.

"We've got to just play hard for 40 minutes, try to get better, improve. We always like to play top-20 teams because eventually that's what we want to be. It's a good experience for our guys and we've just got to go down there and compete."

The 5-4 Lopes will rely on a heavy dose of DeWayne Russell on Wednesday. The 5-foot-11 Peoria High School grad and NAU transfer is averaging 25.4 points per game, making him the nation's second-leading scorer. His 42-point performance in a hard-fought loss to Louisville last week drew praise from legendary coach Rick Pitino.

Russell knows the Lopes have their work cut out for them in Tucson. But thanks to their previous road experience, they won't be short on confidence as they head east on the I-10 to face one of the NCAA's basketball bluebloods.

"I think Duke's probably one of the toughest places to play in the country, so just having that confidence that we played there gives us confidence that we can play anywhere," he said.

"We're going to go down there with our best foot forward and play as hard as we possibly can, and we're going to try to get after them."

Both teams have had their share of injury problems -- especially the Wildcats, who lost one of their top players, freshman Ray Smith, before the season even began with a career-ended ACL tear. Also, point guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright is expected to miss several weeks with a high ankle sprain. And then, there's the bizarre case of sophomore guard Allonzo Trier, who hasn't played this year for reasons yet to be specified.

Even so, the Wildcats have opened the season a respectable 8-2 thanks to some outstanding play from their freshmen, including 7-footer Lauri Markkanen, who leads the team with 16.8 points and 7.1 rebounds per game.

"They're pretty big. They're probably going to be a little more athletic than we are," Russell said. "We're just going to go down there and play as hard as we possibly can."

Arizona is down to just seven healthy/eligible scholarship players, but Majerle knows the talent still available to the Wildcats, along with their home-court advantage -- Arizona has lost just one home game in their last four seasons -- makes for a challenging combination.

"They've had a lot of injuries just like we have, but we know it's gonna be tough," he said. "It's a great environment. Coach (Sean) Miller's done a fantastic job there. So we've just got to go down there and compete and play as hard as we can."

Majerle knows full well just how good a coach Miller is, and he respects the former Pitt point guard for his ability to carry on a program that rose to national prominence under Lute Olson.

"I know him really well. He was a great player. He's an unbelievable coach. He's done a great job of continuing that program," Majerle said.

"I've got nothing but respect for him and for him playing us -- one of the first Pac-12 teams to play us, so that's great, and it'll be a fun experience coaching against him."

Majerle remembers playing a game at McKale Center as a member of the Suns, and he said he's attended a few Wildcats practices in Tucson. And even though he's never coached a game at McKale, he knows his team will face a crowd as hostile as what his team faced at Duke and Kentucky.

But the battle-tested Lopes won't be shaken by the noise of the home crowd Wednesday -- and regardless of the outcome, Majerle hopes the experience will be another step toward GCU's rise to national prominence.

"I'm familiar with Tucson. I know what a great crowd they have and what a great environment it is," he said. "It'll be another good experience for everybody."