Story by Evan Oscherwitz
Before the start of the college basketball season, few observers would have expected Grand Canyon University to be the state of Arizona’s lone representative in the NCAA tournament.
However, with Arizona facing a postseason ban and Arizona State struggling to find its way, it appears as though the ‘Lopes (10-3, 4-0 WAC) might indeed be the only team from the Grand Canyon State to have a shot in March.
GCU has enjoyed a resurgence of sorts under first-year head coach Bryce Drew, who arrived in North Phoenix last March after a three-year stint at Vanderbilt. While the ‘Lopes recorded five consecutive winning seasons from 2014-15 to 2018-19, they fell just short of making the tournament each year and plummeted to a 13-17 record last season.
Thanks to Drew’s coaching and a number of new additions to the team, GCU currently sits at first place in the WAC as they head into two crucial games against defending conference champion New Mexico State. Drew recently joined the Brad Cesmat Show to discuss his team’s success and how they’ve handled this challenging season.
“It’s really come together quickly,” Drew said. “But we still have obviously a long way to go. New Mexico State has set a standard in this league for quite a while and they’re very talented and they’re very well-coached.”
GCU’s success has come in large part due to the emergence of senior center Asbjorn Midtgaard, who spent the last three seasons at Wichita State. While Midtgaard struggled to find a meaningful role with the Shockers, he has established himself as a legitimate star player for the ‘Lopes.
He leads the nation with a 74.5 percent field goal percentage and is in a three-way tie for 22nd place in rebounds per game with 9.8. While Midtgaard’s numbers are impressive, his work ethic has had just as profound an impact on the team’s performance as his shooting and rebounding skills.
“When he came in this summer, he set a different tone for our team,” Drew said. “You don’t get many seven-foot, 270-pound players who are diving for loose balls at practice. His toughness, his mentality to rebound, has really influenced our team.”
— GCU Men's Basketball (@GCU_MBB) January 24, 2021
Despite having a new head coach and an abundance of new players, lack of continuity has not hurt GCU in its quest for the first WAC championship and March Madness berth in program history.
While the ‘Lopes still have to play the bulk of their conference schedule, the early returns have been promising, and it appears as though the players have fully bought into Drew’s vision.
— Overtime (@overtime) January 16, 2021
“What I like most is just how they’ve come together and blended together,” Drew said. “We didn’t have a normal summer, you don’t have a normal fall, we’ve had three different quarantine breaks in our practices. They’ve had to have some adversity, but I actually think the adversity, the quarantines make them come together a little bit more.”
In many ways, Drew’s coaching philosophy mirrors GCU’s mission as a university. He inherited a group of players from four different countries with varying degrees of college basketball experience and brought them together using faith and a shared desire to be great.
Whether or not the ‘Lopes will secure their first March Madness berth this season remains to be seen, but Drew has put together the framework for GCU to be a contending team in the WAC for years to come.
GCU looks as good as they ever have; and if they continue to make strides, it won’t be long before college basketball fans in Arizona take notice.