GCU alone at No. 1 with best college basketball record, but no promise of NCAA tourney bid

Grand Canyon's men's basketball team could win its remaining five regular-season games, have the nation's best record in Division I, get to the championship game of the WAC Tournament in Las Vegas, and still find themselves on the heart-breaking end of Selection Sunday.


Because, if GCU falls in the WAC tournament to a team other than Tarleton State, the Lopes could be left out of March Madness by the selection committee based on the weakness of the conference they've dominated so far. If Tarleton State should meet GCU in the conference tournament championship and win, GCU would go to the NCAA Tournament as the WAC representative, because Tarleton State is not eligible as it hasn't finished the probation process transitioning from Division II.

GCU at Grand Canyon University Arena in Phoenix on Feb. 17, 2024.
GCU at Grand Canyon University Arena in Phoenix on Feb. 17, 2024.

The WAC has never had more than one team qualify for the dance since GCU began transitioning from Division II to Division I 11 years ago. Considered a smaller conference, the WAC has only had the tournament champion represent as the automatic qualifier.

The WAC is ranked 14th among 32 conferences in the nation in the KenPom. GCU's NCAA Evaluation Tool ranking is 45. The Lopes, if they keep winning and win the conference tournament, could be looking at a seed as high as 9.

GCU, since coach Bryce Drew took over the program four years ago, has been to two NCAA Tournaments, in 2021 and last season as a low seed.

This has been Drew's best team since arriving in Phoenix. The Lopes are 24-2. After top-ranked UConn's loss Tuesday night at Creighton, GCU now has the fewest losses of any Division I team in the nation.

The Lopes are 14-1 in the WAC with second-place Tarleton State refusing to lose in the last four weeks. The Lopes make their most difficult WAC road trip this week, playing red-hot Tarleton State (18-7, 11-3) on Thursday and Abilene Christian (10-15, 5-9) on Saturday.

More GCU Basketball news: Tyon Grant-Foster clutch down stretch in Grand Canyon's win over CBU, Lopes improve to 24-2

Tarleton State has won its past six games and last year at home handed GCU one of the worst defeats in the Drew era with the Lopes falling 81-62.

In mid-January, GCU had one of its best performances of the season in a 74-48 win at home against Tarleton State, a game in which Gabe McGlothan and Tyon Grant-Foster combined for 36 points.

McGlothan has been telling his teammates not around last year how tough it is to win at Tarleton State.

"It was not our best showing,” McGlothan said of last year’s game at Tarleton State. “Definitely the guys who were here last year -- we have a chip on our shoulders. We’re showing that to the new guys on our team. I think that’s why we emphasized at home this is not an easy team. Now we’re taking that on the road and making sure that standard is still high.”

Here is what GCU needs to do to finish with the nation’s best record heading into the tournament:

Continue to close games strong

The thread that has allowed GCU to win 24 of its 26 games thus far is its clutch abilities at the end of games.

Whether it’s Grant-Foster making big shots, Collin Moore coming up with defensive stops, Duke Brennan and McGlothan pounding the boards, the Lopes have flourished in the final minutes of games.

Its best finish came at UT Arlington on Jan. 27, when it closed the game on a 17-2 run for a 67-61 win.

GCU managed to win that, despite shooting 29.6% from the field.

There is a mindset with this team that it owns the last four minutes of the games and it shows in the sense of urgency it plays with during that time, whether it’s attacking the glass, knocking down free throws, rebounding or making stops.

Drew knows how tough this Texas trip will be, with Tarleton State shooting at a high level.

"Going into their gym makes it even more difficult," Drew said. "They're different from the last two teams we played. They make it hard to pass. They really pressure the basketball."

Play like the hunter, not the hunted

Every WAC team is giving GCU its A game. California Baptist looked like the best team in the WAC, before GCU finally got the Lancers to miss some shots and the Lopes pulled up with a seven-point lead in the final two minutes with two straight 3s by Grant-Foster, before coming away with a 79-76 win on Saturday.

McGlothan sees how every team is playing GCU like it's their last game.

"If you don't have someone chasing you or holding you to a standard, it's easy to lose the hard work that you want," McGlothan said. "It's very important. Coaches hold us to a standard. And that's mostly where we mostly get our accountability.

"We want to be at that level where everybody is giving us their best. They want to beat the big brother, prove themselves. We've got to stay king of the hill. It only gets us better when we play later in the season, too."

Coming out stronger

GCU has had a tendency to start games slowly, especially on the road. During a three-game road trip this season, the Lopes shot 30% but won all three games. That's determination on defense and sacrificing their bodies that win games like that.

But the Lopes know they need to shoot the ball better to start games.

Drew has gotten help from the bench late in the season with the emergence of 6-9 wing Lok Wur and the progress of point guard Jovan Blacksher Jr., who is starting to find that rhythm that made him the Preseason WAC Player of the Year before the 2022-23 season. He came back this season after undergoing ACL surgery from an injury at Sam Houston on Jan. 5, 2023.

"With five games left, we know every game is magnified with the importance of them," Drew said. "It's huge for the standings and for momentum. We want to feel good about the way we're going.

Guys are coming through right now. The bench, when they play well, they're very good. Jovan and Lok have really impacted us."

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This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: GCU alone with best record but not guaranteed NCAA tourney berth