Everyone knows about top-ranked Kentucky. How the Wildcats are deep, talented, almost frightening. How being the visiting team at Rupp Arena this season might be a little like being the visiting team at the Roman Colosseum.
It makes one wonder how they’re feeling at Grand Canyon University right about now? Come Friday, the Antelopes -- starting only their second season in Division I -- will be the first team to officially look down the business end of John Calipari’s two platoons of McDonald’s All-Americans.
“We’re not even trying to think too much about them. We’re trying to focus on ourselves,” senior guard Jerome Garrison said. “I guess it is one of those old Soviet Union-United States battles, where they’re the greatest team in the world and you’re just going in there to see if you can survive.
“But everyone suits up to play the same, and wherever the ball decides to go in that night, that team is going to win. Hopefully we can compete. That’s all we’re trying to do, compete.”
Or as senior forward Daniel Alexander put it, “At the end of the day, we all tie up our shoes the same. As far as I know.”
Speaking of unknowns, Alexander said he had no idea who Adolph Rupp -- the historic Kentucky coach -- was, not being a big college basketball history man. “I wish I had a better answer; that I’ve just grown up watching Kentucky, and finally get to play there," he said.
The name of Grand Canyon’s coach might ring a bell. Dan Majerle came out of Central Michigan to be an NBA All-Star for the Phoenix Suns and play in the Olympics, so he knows a little about overcoming the odds.
“We don’t have any misconceptions. We understand what we’re getting into,” he said of Friday’s game. “It’s going to be a terrific experience for our kids. It’ll be good for our campus, it’ll be good for our community, just to put our name out there and expand our brand of what we’re trying to do here at Grand Canyon.”
What Majerle is trying to do is build a Division I program in a hurry. So far, things have gone swimmingly. The Antelopes were 15-15 in their first Division I season, and were picked by the media this year to finish second in the Western Athletic Conference. More than 7,000 people showed up to watch their exhibition win against Western New Mexico this past weekend.
Grand Canyon won’t be eligible for the conference or NCAA tournaments for three more years, so until then, Majerle plans a toughening-up process. Hence, Kentucky.
“Our goal three years from now is to really hit the ground running, and be playing really good basketball so we have a chance to win the conference and get to the NCAA Tournament as soon as possible,” he said. “So playing a team like this is a step in the right direction.”
His message to his team this week?
“Just enjoy the experience. Ten or 20 years from now, you don’t want to look back that you went into a situation like this afraid or scared or in awe of another team. Just go out and do what you do, and the final score will be what it will be. Make sure you give it your all, so you have fond memories of it.”
Majerle plans to, anyway. He has never seen Rupp Arena.
“I’m actually taking my son [Max] with me. He’s 12. He’s excited about it. I’m telling the players this is a new experience for me, too. I played in some of the greatest arenas in the world, but I’ve never been to Rupp Arena. I’ve never been in Assembly Hall in Indiana, and we’re going there, too.”
Majerle was an assistant with the Suns before taking over at Grand Canyon last year. “It’s even better than I expected. I really love it,” he said of college coaching. That includes when his players call up old Suns’ games on their computers and watch their coach running around in short pants.
“When they see the things I was able to accomplish, I think that gives me some credibility when I talk to them and teach them,” he said. “One thing I always tell them is whatever I ask them to do, whether it’s conditioning or running drills or how to get through a pick-and-roll, I’ve been through it.”Which begged the question: At 49 years old, does he play with his team?
“I’m too old to scrimmage but I have shooting games with them. A lot of these guys have only seen me on YouTube and they want to know if I can still shoot. Unfortunately, I can still outshoot all my players, so my goal is to find some guys that I can’t outshoot.”
The seniors understand what this trip is about, that it is meant to benefit Grand Canyon after they are gone.
“Mainly a great opportunity for the future,” Garrison called it.
“A great starting point to where this program is headed the next couple of years,” Alexander said.
Which is why the Antelopes are getting to Lexington, Kentucky, two days early, to “soak everything in,” as Majerle put it. “Eventually, our goal is to be a top 25 team. And to get there, we’re going to have to act like a top 25 team. So this is good for our guys to see what a No. 1 team is all about.”
But for one night, the chance to shock the world is this team’s alone. Grand Canyon and Kentucky on the same marquee. “I’m excited. It’s not something everybody gets to do,” Garrison said.
“Every once in a while, someone on campus asks if I’m ready to play Kentucky,” Alexander said. “I’ll go, 'At this moment, no. I’m wearing school clothes and headed to class. But we will be by the time we get there.' "
Besides, no matter the outcome, a No. 1 team’s game is national news. “That’ll be pretty cool,” Garrison said. “We’ve never been on SportsCenter.”