Next Year's Cinderella

The Grand Canyon Antelopes have no shot at making the NCAA tournament this year. None.

Our team is 21–9 overall, and 10-3 in the WAC, which puts us in a tie for second place.

But, look, believe me: We’ve got no chance.

By most measures, we’ve done well this season. We’ve beaten almost all the teams we were supposed to beat, and we’ve even made pretty good showings against ranked teams. In preconference play back in December, we lost to No. 14 Louisville by nine and to No. 19 Arizona by 10. Both games were close in the second halves.

I’m telling you: We’re not going anywhere.

You might be thinking: But what about the WAC tourney next month? If you win that, you’ll get an automatic bid to the Big Dance.

No, we won’t. As much as I think we’d be a dangerous team in the tournament, don’t expect Grand Canyon to be your Cinderella squad.

I’m not saying all this to be harsh or disrespectful to my teammates or my school.

That’s just our reality. Four years ago, GCU men’s basketball began its official transition from Division II to Division I. And according to NCAA rules, during these four years, GCU isn’t eligible to compete in conference tournaments or in the NCAA tournament.

But if you think we’ve just been sitting around wasting time while we wait to become eligible, you haven’t met our coach.

As a kid, I remember going downtown with my family to see Phoenix Suns games. After the games, we would make our way over to a nearby sports bar. I used to love to go there because they had posters of Suns legends all over the walls. One night, when I was maybe 11 or 12, we went there for dinner and something was a little different. People were lined up near the back of the restaurant. I noticed a man sitting at a table — a tall guy with broad shoulders — and it looked like he was signing autographs. That was the first time I met Dan Majerle, the owner of the restaurant. The place was called Majerle’s, but I was a kid, and I hadn’t put two and two together. I was born one year after the Suns lost to the Bulls in the 1993 NBA Finals — the season Charles Barkley won the MVP award. That team had guys like Danny Ainge, Tom Chambers, Kevin Johnson. But outside of Barkley, who I saw on TNT all the time, those guys were just names to me. It was before my time.

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty IMAGES

Still, when you’re a basketball-obsessed kid and a former NBA player is signing autographs in front of you, you have to get one. No question.

Majerle had a stack of pictures next to him on the table. The pictures were all the same: a split-image showing two photos of him side by side. On the left was Majerle at the restaurant, and the caption below said, “Dan Majerle at work.” On the right was Majerle in a Suns jersey, in midair about to dunk. The caption read, “Dan Majerle at play.”

I waited in line until it was my turn. Majerle smiled, signed one of the pictures and handed it to me.

I didn’t expect to ever see him again.

The summer before a player’s senior year of high school is really important for college basketball recruiting. Unless you’re a top 100 recruit who’s been on the national radar since you started high school (and that wasn’t me), that summer is your best chance to get noticed by college programs. It’s also when schools really ramp up their recruiting efforts. My junior year at Boulder Creek High, in my hometown of Anthem, I averaged 18.5 points, 9.4 rebounds and a couple assists, steals and blocks per game. Our team went 18–9. I’d always dreamed of playing Division I basketball, and all of a sudden that year, everything felt like it was falling into place. I starting to get a lot of recruiting letters from D-I programs. It felt like my basketball dream was finally going to come true. But during a summer AAU game, I was racing down the court on a fast break when I went up for a layup — with a defender draped on my back — and I felt a pop in my knee. It hurt so bad that I couldn’t even get a shot off. It was the worst pain I’d ever felt. I didn’t play the rest of the game, but I didn’t leave the bench. I figured it was most likely just a bad sprain. I had dealt with minor injuries before, so I didn’t think it would be too serious. I was wrong: Right knee. ACL. Torn. After that, the steady stream of recruiting calls and letters letters slowed to a trickle. I was crushed. I did not know what the future held for me and my basketball career. With my hope placed in Christ, I was determined to bounce back. I wasn’t going to give up. After a summer of rehabbing, I made it back in time for my senior season at my new school, Westwind Preparatory Academy, in Phoenix. We had a team that traveled nationally to play big-time prep schools. I got a lot of good exposure against powerhouse teams like Findlay Prep, in Nevada. (Findlay’s alumni includes Gonzaga’s Nigel Williams-Goss.) As my knee got stronger, I started to regain my form. Some of the scholarship offers came back. But right when I was starting to narrow down my choices, I tore the ACL in my left knee. I know. Believe me, it was a huge letdown. I didn’t know what to do at that point. I was worried that my career could be over. Once again, I turned to my faith, and that’s what really kept me going. Most of my Division I offers dried up immediately after that — except for two: the ones from New Mexico State and Drake. At the time, Marvin Menzies was the coach at New Mexico State. We’d built a good relationship throughout the recruiting process, and I appreciated all the time and effort he and his coaches had invested in me. But I just didn’t think Las Cruces would be the right fit for me. Drake might not have been my first choice, but it was a strong mid-major program. It was also a place where I thought I could really make a difference. The Bulldogs had only made the NCAA Tournament once since the 1971, but they always seemed to be pretty good. But a few days before I was going to commit, Drake’s entire coaching staff was fired — and my scholarship offer was revoked. Just like that, my dream of playing Division I hoops really seemed to be over. I had to take a step back and really pray about my future. My family was worried — they knew how important basketball was to me, and how it had always been my dream to compete at the D-I level. It felt like the wheels were coming off and we didn’t know what to do. The whole thing showed me just how little control anybody actually has over anything. The only other team that maintained interest in me was a Division II right in my own backyard: The Grand Canyon Antelopes. I had a great relationship with the coaching staff at GCU, but I was always hesitant to commit to being a Lope because I had always envisioned myself playing Division I basketball. But with my options dwindling I gave GCU a closer look. The fact that the Lopes were still interested, after all my injuries, meant a whole lot to me. After two major knee surgeries and all the rehab that went with them, it was hard to find people who still believed in me. It had been a while since all those recruiting calls had been coming in every week. So I was ready to commit to GCU, and I was feeling good about it — but then a few weeks later, before I signed my letter of intent, the entire GCU coaching staff was fired. It felt like the end of the road. I figured it was a sign. I remember praying, “Lord, if this basketball thing is for me, please provide an opportunity.”

A few days later, I got a call from a Phoenix number.

“Hey Josh, this is Dan,” the man on the other end of the line said. “Dan Majerle.”

He told me that he’d just taken the head coaching job at GCU.

“You remind me a lot of myself when I was in college,” he continued.

It was a phone call that I’ll never forget.

But before I could say, “I’m in,” he kept going.

“We’re making the transition to Division I. How would you like to be a part of that?”

My prayers had been answered.

Of course it’s tough to miss out on the the NCAAs. Playing in March is every college basketball player’s dream. But from the first day I got to GCU, Coach Majerle has been adamant about one thing: We want to be a Top 25 team. Next year, when we will be eligible for postseason play, we expect to qualify for the NCAA tournament — and we expect to be competitive.

On November 22, 2013, we took our first big step in that direction when we beat Savannah State. It was our first win as a Division I team against a Division I opponent. I’ll never forget the locker room after that win.

We were already pretty hyped, but when coach Majerle burst into the room … it went to another level. Coach was jumping up and down, yelling, screaming and clapping like a madman. I was a redshirt that season because of a torn meniscus. But even though I wasn’t able to practice with the team, I was still there every day. It wasn’t until that win, though, that I truly understood how much coach cared about this program.


Since then, we’ve racked up a few big wins — against San Diego State and then New Mexico State. But not every step has been as smooth. That’s kind of by design. Coach Majerle wants us to be ready to compete against the best teams in the country next season, and the only way to do that is to play over our heads. So he’s stacked our schedule the last few years: Kentucky, Duke, Arizona. He even scheduled a home-and-home with Louisville.

We know we’re the underdogs in those games, and we embrace that. After all, what have we got to lose? If a team loses to us, it could burst their tournament bubble. If we lose, well, we didn’t have a bubble in the first place. The only thing we need to worry about is competing as hard as possible. It’s our way of measuring ourselves against the best in the country.

Coach wants us to understand that we’re building something for the future, not just for ourselves. He wants us to see these seasons as stepping-stones to where we want to be one year from now.

We still have a ways to go.

Two years ago, Kentucky beat us by 40 points. Last year, Louisville beat us by 48 — after leading by 31 at the half.

When we played Louisville again this year, I think the Cardinals were expecting a similar result … but we knew we were going to put up a fight. Unfortunately, I was unable to play due to another knee injury I had suffered a few games before. It was the first game I had missed in my GCU career.

DeWayne Russell, one of our senior guards, put on a show, scoring 18 points in the first half, including a three at the buzzer that put us up 37–36. We fought with everything we had — DeWayne finished the game with 42 points, a career high — and it wasn’t until midway through the second half that Louisville pulled away to win by nine.

The loss stung because we thought we had them. But as they say, some losses teach you more than others. This loss did exactly that. Just look at Coach Pitino’s comments about us after the game.

We’re incredibly lucky to play in the arena we have, in front of fans who support us so wholeheartedly. They bring it every night, wild and ready, and give us the sort of home court advantage that you usually only hear about when it comes to programs like Duke or Kansas. Honestly, that’s just as important to building a successful program as anything we’re doing on the court. When the fans buy in, you know you’re doing something right.

Sometimes I think about all the injuries I’ve suffered — how they changed my recruiting process and changed my college basketball trajectory. Without those injuries, I probably wouldn’t be here at GCU. I wouldn’t have met Dan Majerle again. Maybe if I had gone to a different school, I might’ve already played in a tournament game or two. But I wouldn’t have it any other way. I trust that God has a plan for me and I’ve enjoyed every step of this journey.

No matter what college you play for, the postseason is never guaranteed. At GCU, we’ve embraced that essential truth because we’ve had to live it. We’re just waiting for our time.

We believe that what we’re doing here is bigger than any end-of-season tournament. We’re building a program, a tradition, a culture.

And now we’re so close. We’re so close to eligibility for the NCAA tournament. We’re so close to finishing the NCAA transition period. We’re so close to being that mid-major school in the desert that no one will want to face come March.

Next year, I have a feeling we’ll be dancing.