Grand Canyon University has a lovely new arena and a bright future as it transitions into Division I men’s basketball next season.
Coach Russ Pennell, now in his fourth year, was an assistant for six seasons under Rob Evans at Arizona State and led Arizona to the Sweet Sixteen in his one season as interim coach in 2009. He parlayed that into the Grand Canyon gig, and brought with him grand plans which are now coming to fruition.
But it’s quite the contrast from four years ago, when Desert Vista star Josh Lowery never considered joining the program and Saguaro’s Steven Morin felt like he moved up to college basketball in name only.
The team still played in Antelope Gym at the time, a rec center of sorts with a capacity of about 100 and a following which didn’t demand anything more.
“It felt like I graduated from high school and came to another high school,” Morin said.
The 5,000-seat arena opened in September of 2011, coinciding with the program’s ascent.
Grand Canyon went 19-8 last season and advanced to the Division II postseason. This year the Antelopes are 14-4 and reeled off 13 consecutive wins at one point, the longest streak in more than 20 years.
On Nov. 27, it was announced that the program will join the Western Athletic Conference in 2013-14, a huge step because it’s Division I and, following a probationary period of four years, gives the school the recruiting pitch of possibly playing in March Madness.
“Some kids have left Phoenix before just because of the perception,” Pennell said. “What we hope now that we are Division I is that we’ve just taken another hurdle out of the way.”
Grand Canyon University has always been heavy on Arizona kids since Pennell took over.
The current roster has 12 former East Valley standouts: Morin, Lowery (Desert Vista), his younger brother Jeff (Desert Vista), Camyn Boone (Mountain View), Derreck Brooks (Desert Ridge), Barret Robbins (Desert Vista), Braylon Pickrel (Red Mountain), Brad Carroll (Corona del Sol), Micah Fetters (Hamilton), Jerome Garrison (Mountain Pointe), Dillon Currier (Gilbert Christian) and Blake Davis (St. Mary’s).
In the past, it’s been a landing spot for players coming back from Division I schools, like Lowery (Pepperdine), Davis (Weber State) and former Highland and Saguaro star Nick Witherill (Washington State).
Now, though, with the lure of new facilities and Division I standing — along with Pennell’s ties within the basketball community — Grand Canyon will try to keep those players home from the start.
Pennell said every Arizona player in his past two recruiting classes — Garrison, Boone, Jeff Lowery and Brooks — had Division I scholarship offers but chose instead to play for Grand Canyon.
While Arizona and Arizona State still hold more prestige as members of the Pac-12, the Antelopes can now battle Northern Arizona and other low-major colleges for next-tier recruits.
“I know a lot of times there’s the whole stigma of Division II,” Josh Lowery said. “A lot of kids, especially in high school, want to say they went to a Division I university. This raises the prestige of the university.”
Perry junior point guard Jordan Howard leads the state in scoring at 25.5 points per game (according to MaxPreps.com) and has scholarship offers from GCU, NAU and Weber State. He said the Antelopes’ move definitely boosts their stock.
“That one thing when I was recruited, it was great facilities, great program, great everything, but it was a D-II school,” Howard said. “Now it makes it that much more appealing.”
While Grand Canyon’s profile has risen quickly, Pennell actually feels as though it took longer than expected. He’s ready for the next step, and thinks the team can compete quickly.
He pointed out various Division II schools hanging with top-notch Division I foes, including the Antelopes’ 82-75 exhibition loss to Oregon last year.
“The high-end D-IIs, they’ve got great talent,” Pennell said. “That’s why we feel like the transition for us, while it will be a challenge, I don’t think it’s going to be monumental and will take years and years to accomplish. I think we already have Division I players in our program.”
Pennell was asked about reasonable expectations five years from now, and he aimed high.
“In five years, that means we’re in our first year of being eligible for the NCAA Tournament,” he said. “I would hope we’re getting our name called on Selection Sunday. That’s my goal. My goal is to be as good as we can be quickly. If we recruit well and coach well, we should be challenging for an opportunity to go to the tournament.”
It might sound like a shot for the moon, but for a program that’s grown by leaps and bounds in the last half-decade, following a similar trajectory wouldn’t make it that far-fetched.