Fresh off a less than convincing 78-70 victory against Nicholls State in their season opener, the Fighting Illini will head to the 48th state for matchups against Grand Canyon and Arizona. GCU hosts Illinois Friday night at 8 p.m. Central time. Here’s what we know about the Antelopes.
Who They Are
Grand Canyon University is a private school located in Phoenix, Arizona. GCU was founded as Grand Canyon College in 1949 and currently enrolls about 20,000 students (though its online enrollment is approximately 70,000). The Antelopes joined Division I in 2013 and compete in the Western Athletic Conference with schools such as New Mexico State, Utah Valley, Seattle...and Chicago State. These two squads met in Champaign two seasons ago, with the Illini grinding out a four-point win.
What They Did Last Year
GCU went 20-14 last year, including a 10-6 mark in WAC play. The Antelopes did participate in a postseason tournament, losing to West Virginia, 77-63, in the first round of the College Basketball Invitational (CBI). They didn’t really have a “signature” win last season, but did play many quality non-conference opponents, including South Dakota State, Seton Hall, Utah, Nevada, Texas & Northern Iowa. Both the Antelopes & Illini defeated Mississippi Valley State in 2018-19.
Players To Watch
GCU boasts pretty good backcourt depth, including TCU transfer Jaylen Fisher (but he’s unavailable until December) and former Northwestern guard Isiah Brown, and leading scorer Carlos Johnson. The Illini’s triumvirate of Ayo Dosunmu, Andres Feliz & Trent Frazier will try to utilize its speed to force GCU’s guards into turning the ball over.
Illinois outrebounded Nicholls State 53-23, and the Antelopes don’t have much size — only two active players are 6-foot-7 or taller.
However, junior center Alessandro Lever could present problems for the Fighting Illini. The 6-foot-10 Italian can play as a traditional back-to-the-basket big man or as a stretch five — Lever averaged 12.5 points per game and shot better than 35% from long range last season. Giorgi Bezhanishvili will be assigned to defend him (Brad Underwood mentioned during this week’s media session that Giorgi would ideally split minutes between center and power forward), though you’ll likely see a bulkier big like Kofi Cockburn guard Lever around the paint. Who knows? Maybe Jermaine Hamlin gets a crack at him, too.
Dan Majerle has developed Grand Canyon into one of the better mid-major programs in the country, and this figures to be an early season test for the Illini. This game should have a March Madness-like atmosphere to it. GCU’s gym will be sold out and the student section — the Havocs — will be absolutely raucous.
Without too many top-tier opponents on the non-Big Ten schedule, the Illini can ill afford to suffer too many early Ls. Illinois needs to bounce back from an alarmingly lackluster performance Tuesday night. And GCU will likely be angry after losing to Division II Davenport University in its home opener.
Will this game be a wake-up call...or a harbinger of things to come?