Story by Brandon Bonaparte
Through a season of uncertain times, odd circumstances and a nearly three-week long hiatus right in the middle of conference play, Grand Canyon University is two wins away from its first-ever NCAA Division I Tournament appearance.
According to ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, the Lopes are slated to be the last 14 seed in the tournament, potentially squaring off with a little-known basketball program (sarcasm) located in Lawrence, KS: the Kansas Jayhawks.
— Joe Lunardi (@ESPNLunardi) March 9, 2021
However, before any of this comes to fruition, GCU has to navigate the WAC Tournament. Because of some WAC teams either opting out of the season or simply not being eligible for postseason play yet, the WAC Tournament bracket will take on a unique form, allowing GCU to get a bye to the semifinals.
— The Western Athletic Conference (@WACsports) March 7, 2021
This bye could be a blessing for the Lopes, but it could also be a curse due to their recent Friday woes.
“Because coming off the last two weekends of the season, they did not play their best on Fridays, and they kind of worked themselves back into the level they’re used to playing on Saturdays,” said GCU senior writer and men’s basketball radio broadcast analyst Paul Coro. “In January, they were 8-0, and then they had that 20-day layoff, and that really hurt them. They lost their rhythm. There were times in there where they couldn’t practice or anything. By the time games came back around, they were almost like starting back up again.”
“Obviously, you have to do well this Friday night,” said Rachel Vigil, on-air talent for the WAC and co-host of the WAC Podcast. “There’s no ‘oh, we can come back Saturday night.’ If you don’t win Friday night, you’re out. You’re going home. That’s it.”
While the big dance is still a week away, the madness of March has already taken full effect. Many mid-major conferences have seen their No. 1 seeds drop like flies in league postseason tournaments. As GCU gears up for Friday, head coach Bryce Drew chooses to focus internally rather than listen to the outside noise.
“I think the big thing is what I said earlier: just focusing on ourselves,” Drew said. “Again, we can’t control wins and losses. We can go out and play the hardest that we can, try to execute the best that we can, and have the right focus the best that we can. Those are our main things.”
Looking at the bracket, the top three seeds all possess different storylines. The No. 2 seed, Utah Valley, is fresh off a weekend split with GCU.
While only 11-10 on the season, the Wolverines have found their stride, winning four out of their last six games. The No. 3 seed, however, is no stranger to success in this tournament. New Mexico State is the perennial champion of this conference, representing the WAC in March in all but one year since 2012.
“I don’t think New Mexico State is sneaking up on anybody,” Coro said. “Until proven otherwise, New Mexico State remains the team to beat in Las Vegas because they’ve just owned the WAC regular season and the WAC tournament for several years now.”
“Anybody from New Mexico State can have a good night,” added Vigil. “In years past, there’s been a couple of big names that we’ve looked at. I think this year, they’ve kind of got, I don’t want to say a more well-rounded team, but there’s not really just one star.”
As for the No 1 seed Lopes, they will not see Utah Valley or New Mexico State until the finals. Their focus instead is set on either Seattle or California Baptist, both teams who GCU split with in the month of February.
“Yeah, there’s a chance with the Seattle-CBU winner that that team has got some rhythm from playing,” Coro said. “It’s interesting because those two teams just played in the last week of the season. So that’s going to be three games in a row. One thing that might work to GCU’s benefit is the totally different type of style that they’ll have to get ready for on a two-day turnaround. Whereas GCU is right now kind of laying back, unable to prep. So, you can look at it both ways.”
“As a coach, you never want to play any games,” Drew said, “But I think either team’s going to be really good and going to present different challenges.”
Regardless of who is in front of them, GCU, much like any other team in March, has to survive and advance. While the Lopes are the top seed and the betting favorite, coach Drew’s mentality mimics that of a one-game season.
“The only way I think you advance in March is being in the moment,” Drew said. “Right now, our moment is just having good practices, getting to Vegas and then getting everything geared up for Friday night.”