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Grand Canyon, college basketball's best party, is emerging as a mid-major power

Deep in the desert lies one of the NCAA’s most controversial schools – a university that might soon boast one of college basketball’s top mid-major programs.

PHOENIX — This doesn't feel normal.

There are still 15 minutes to go before tip-off, but the place is already packed for a game between the host Grand Canyon Antelopes and a nondescript, .500 Seattle Redhawks team.

"It's a dance party and a family reunion put together," says freshman Israel Barrera, who is standing in the first row after waiting in line for three hours. "It's the best environment in the country."

The "Purple Pre-Game Party" is now in full swing, a 4,000-person student section waving their arms and fist-pumping in concert as Lil Jon yells over a Steve Aoki beat.

The beat drops, streamers fly into the air, and for a minute you forget a college basketball game is about to be played.

Welcome to Grand Canyon University Arena, home to what could very well be college basketball's next elite mid-major.

* * *

Walk around Grand Canyon for 10 minutes and you can already tell that this school is different from others. Every building looks brand new, so much so that I'm almost afraid to touch anything.

Every student has a smile on their face, and each lawn is perfectly manicured. Think Augusta National meets Disneyland, but with 19,000 college students and a Chick-fil-A.

The college spent $150 million on renovations to its campus back in 2006, and started work on a $60 million campus expansion project in 2009. That included the building of GCU Arena, which was renovated just three years after opening in 2011 in order to expand from 5,000 to 7,000 seats.

It's not a secret that this place has money, and it's not a secret where that money comes from.

Grand Canyon is a for-profit university, owned by Grand Canyon Education, Inc. Its administration is controlled by shareholders, and its stock, (NASDAQ: LOPE), is publicly traded. The university's current stock market value is about $2.7 billion.

The Antelopes are the first, and only, for-profit to participate at the NCAA's Division I level, and the reception hasn't always been kind.

Shortly after announcing that it would be moving up to Division I, Pac-12 institutions — in an effort led by Arizona State president Michael Crow — pledged that they would stop scheduling athletic contests against Grand Canyon while the university was still a for-profit institution.

But as the years have passed, acceptance of the Antelopes at the NCAA's highest level has grown.

The Pac-12's stance has softened. Sean Miller's Arizona team hosted them back in December, where they held their own for 40 minutes in a 10-point loss.

The neighboring Sun Devils (located just 15 miles away in Tempe), however, are standing by their president's position, this despite playing a successful charity and community-based exhibition game between Arizona State and Grand Canyon to open GCU Arena back when the team was still at the Division II level.

"ASU won't play us now, but we don't care about that," Grand Canyon head coach Dan Majerle says. "I don't have a problem with them though. We'll play the Sun Devils whenever they want to play us."

That likely won't happen until the university gets out of the for-profit game, which will be very tough to accomplish. With the amount of profit being turned, the investors are not likely to sell their shares anytime soon.

The school has become a good investment due to the perfect storm of being accredited with the ability to market itself as a faith-based institute. That's resulted in a large enrollment (there are roughly 19,000 students on campus, compared to over 60,000 online students). The more students, the more money, the better the investment.

And just as they don't shy away from their for-profit status or marketing of their online classes, religion (and the ability to promote themselves to faith-based organizations) is at the center of everything the school does.

No contest starts without a pregame prayer, where everyone in the arena bows their head in silence. There's a vault of Bibles buried at center court, and a cross standing in the shadow of a cactus on the school's seal.

Even the rowdy students play the part, censoring themselves when rapping along to every line of Jay Z's verse on "Paris" prior to the start of the second half.

"We act just like anybody else," says Majerle when asked about the differences between Grand Canyon and other schools. "But actually, I think it's better. We do things that are amazing for the west side (of Phoenix) and the community around here. If you spend any time on this campus, you'll know it's special."

(via Grand Canyon University)

While the Antelopes might make plenty of headlines outside of sports, the on-court product is quickly becoming a spectacle in itself.

Even on this night against Seattle, when Cameron Dollar's Redhawks seemed to confuse Grand Canyon with a couple of different zone looks, this is still an incredibly fun team to watch.

A total of seven points have been scored more than seven minutes into the game, but the combination of a raucous crowd, high pace, and multiple hustle plays make for a brand of watchable basketball that is often hard to come by at any level of Division I hoops.

A large part of this can be attributed to Majerle, the team's intense and passionate head coach. Majerle was drafted out of college by the Phoenix Suns and has remained a large personality in the Valley ever since, eventually joining the Suns coaching staff for six years after two separate stints there as a player.

He was then hired by the university prior to the 2013-14 season, his first year coinciding with the team's initial Division I season. Majerle replaced former Arizona State and Arizona assistant Russ Pennell, who had gone 72-44 as head coach of the Antelopes. The move was questioned by some, but makes more sense when you consider one of the school's primary benefactors, former Suns owner Jerry Colangelo, is a longtime friend of Majerle.

No one is questioning the decision now.

Majerle has guided Grand Canyon to a record of 73-45 throughout his tenure, the best record of the four schools currently making the transition to become full Division I members. That transition will be complete after this season, allowing the team to be selected to both the NCAA and NIT tournaments starting with the 2017-18 campaign.

The ultra-competitive head coach has already had plenty of success on the recruiting trail despite the fact the team can't compete in the NCAA tournament yet. Senior point guard DeWayne Russell, who currently ranks seventh in the country in points per game at 23.1, landed in Phoenix after deciding to transfer from Northern Arizona because of the quick relationship he formed with Majerle.

"He called me up after I got my release from NAU," Russell says. "He kind of acted as a father figure for me so it was an easy process. We've just been building on our relationship ever since then."

While Russell may be finding success, it seems a little sad that he will be gone before the program is even eligible to make the NCAA tournament.

He doesn't see it that way. When asked about the future of the team, Russell's face lights up.

"It's going to be amazing, man. I can see a top-25 program, and that's what coach Majerle always preaches. Once we start getting more of those big recruits coming in to see what we've got, people are going to jump at the chance to come."

Thanks to some aggressive scheduling by the Antelopes, the team is already starting to get on the radar of top prospects before they even see the sun-soaked campus and shiny new arena.

Name one of this sport's blue bloods, and there is a strong chance Grand Canyon has faced them in the past few years.

The team has played road games against Duke, Kentucky, Indiana, Arizona, and Penn State in just the last three seasons, while securing away-home-away deals with Louisville and San Diego State in addition.

They have also taken advantage of one of the three postseason tournaments not controlled by the NCAA, accepting an invitation to the CIT in each of their first three seasons under Majerle.

"Since we haven't been able to go to the NCAA tournament, we try to schedule the best competition possible for recruiting purposes," Majerle says. "Going on the road is fun, and then getting Louisville and San Diego State in our own gym is pretty special. The guys really enjoy playing the best, so it's been a great strategy for us."

In the very near future, those challenging non-conference games won't be the team's only chance to play in the national spotlight. After four years, full Division I membership will finally vest next season. The question is: Are the Antelopes ready for their closeup?

(via Grand Canyon University)

The answer to that question is complex, and won't be fully answered for a while. But if one thing is for certain, it's that the pieces are in place for Grand Canyon to become the next elite mid-major in college basketball.

Becoming a Gonzaga or Wichita State doesn't happen overnight. You need multiple recruiting classes to pan out, and those players to stay healthy, and those players to stay for multiple seasons, and then some more luck on top of that.

But you also need a coach that's committed to the program. A rabid fan base. A university dedicated to athletic success.

An attractive locale doesn't hurt either.

The Antelopes can boast all of those attributes, which makes this such an intriguing program in the current national landscape.

"I've got no plans on leaving," says Majerle when asked if he sees himself with Grand Canyon long term. "Mr. Colangelo has been a mentor to me for a long time. President (Brian) Mueller is great. This place took a chance on me, and there's really not a better job in the country."

Majerle knows his ultimate goal of making Grand Canyon a mainstay in the top 25 is a ways off, but he is confident that the program is well on its way there.

"I'm not saying that happens next year, but we're on our way," he says. "Next year we really want to go to the WAC tournament, win it, and move on to the NCAA tournament."

It's not a tough scene to envision.

The Antelopes will go to that conference tournament. Busloads of students will make the trip to Las Vegas.

They will march through the bracket, dog pile on the floor at Orleans Arena, and hear Greg Gumbel read their name on Selection Sunday. The money made from the trip to the Big Dance will go to the pockets of the school's shareholders, and everyone will live happily ever after.

Indeed, the rise from little-known Division II program to a household name may seem like a fairy tale. But for Grand Canyon, that dream could become a reality in the very near future.