Grand Canyon, best known around the country for being the school Tim Finke has committed to, is a fairly new addition to the Division I basketball ranks.
Led by coach Dan Majerle, the Antelopes joined the Western Athletic Conference in July of 2013. They were members of the NAIA 1973-90, during which they captured three national titles.
Grand Canyon was then in Division II until 2013.
This season, the Antelopes are first in the Western Athletic Conference with a 9-4 record. They have already played several high-major opponents, and so far have some impressive games to show.
Although they lack any serious victories, the Antelopes played competitively against St. John’s (a 68-60 loss on Dec. 5) as well as Boise State (a 85-80 OT loss on Dec. 13). Grand Canyon is also 2-0 against shared opponent with the Illini. They have defeated North Carolina Central (64-59 on Dec. 11) and Longwood (86-56 on Dec. 21).
Dan Majerle looks like he is really building a good program down in Phoenix. The Antelopes are probably hungry for a quality win, and coming to Champaign on a Saturday afternoon over winter break could be a chance to steal one.
Key Losses and Additions
Grand Canyon retained a great portion of its roster from last year’s team that finished 22-9 (11-3 in the WAC). The only departures were Darion Clark, a 6-foot-7 forward and DeWayne Russell, a 5-foot-11 guard.
Currently the most important note should be about fifth-year transfer Casey Benson, who played at Oregon last year. Benson is second on the team in scoring with 10.3 points per game this season. The 6-foot-3 guard does a little bit of everything — he pulls down 4.5 boards per game and averages over five assists. Although Benson doesn’t shoot at a high percentage (just 36.6 percent from the field so far this year), he has had a great effect on his new team.
Luckily for Illinois, Grand Canyon doesn’t have a ton of big men who can score at a high rate or who might abuse Finke and Black like Wake Forest’s Doral Moore did. Robert Blumbergs is a 6-foot-10 freshman who averages under six points and four rebounds.
Most likely, I think leading scorer Joshua Braun will have a chance to make a big difference in this game. He is averaging 13.8 points per game and has the potential to make big shots. Braun makes over two three-pointers per game, and at 6-foot-4, he will be able to make things happen in the lane.
Underwood will need to make sure perimeter defenders like Da’Monte Williams and Mark Smith, who will probably match up on Braun for a significant portion of the game, keep him at bay.
I hate games over Christmas break. Driving conditions are often poor and students obviously aren’t going to make a two-plus hour trip to the place they’re going back to in a week and a half, so crowds are sometimes pretty sparse. Considering Tim Finke chose the Antelopes when he (technically) had an Illinois offer on the table, this one seems like it could be a trap game.
Not to worry — Brad Underwood is not going to let that happen.
Grand Canyon’s lack of experience in its true big men will help Illinois, and it simply isn’t a game that Underwood will let the guys drop. Expect Mark Smith to get back on track and Trent Frazier to continue his freshman ascent.
Illinois 85, Grand Canyon 70