Remember the date, December 5, 2017, as the day the Zona Zoo and Grand Canyon Havocs formed an alliance against Texas A&M in Phoenix.
In a doubleheader that included GCU and St. John's, Lopes fans arrived early and distracted the Aggies’ free throw shooters in the second half, where Arizona rallied to outscore Texas A&M 38-33 and win 67-64.
After the game, GCU fans high fived the Wildcats as they jogged back into the locker room.
“We appreciate the GCU fans that helped the Arizona fans help us get this win tonight!” tweeted Arizona forward Keanu Pinder. “Respect.”
Grand Canyon recently became a Division I program and joined the WAC at a time when the conference lost football and had to surround New Mexico State with a bunch of random programs in order to survive.
During their four-year transitional period, the Lopes have transformed into an in-arena event that is among the best in all of college basketball. The student section alone rivals that of the Zona Zoo.
“I learned a lot about GCU when we played them last year. We have a lot of respect for them,” Arizona head coach Sean Miller said. “They’re the only group of people in my nine years at Arizona that I’ve ever heard at McKale. … They love college basketball and it’s great for our state.”
Rick Pitino traveled to GCU last season and called it, “the toughest crowd I ever faced.” I can say from experience that GCU is certainly the best fan experience among the mid-majors. There are high schools in Oklahoma City and Tulsa with bigger gyms than many of the mid-major schools. A kid can go from playing at Enid High School to Boston University and it would be a downgrade in terms of arenas.
I still remember my first GCU game three seasons ago. It was completely packed for a WAC game against Chicago State and I thought I was in some kind of rave. I merely went to a game during Super Bowl week just to see a fellow sports journalist’s brother play basketball and it was one of the most fun I had going to a college basketball game.
Which leads me to my theory about this new found alliance between GCU and Arizona. Many chalk it up to “state pride” and while that may be part of it, this feels more like the proverb, “the enemy of my enemy is my friend.”
The rivalry between Arizona and Arizona State is self explanatory but did you know that GCU and ASU are also beefing? And that GCU fans have the same disdain for ASU fans? Arizona and GCU played each other for the first time last year and have been working to schedule future games but the Lopes and Sun Devils have yet to play each other. Not just in basketball but in any sport.
Why is that?
GCU is the first for-profit university with a Division I program. Arizona State has long been Phoenix’s main place for college basketball but now it might not be the best place to go watch a game. Sure, ASU is undefeated right now and ranked No. 16 but how many home games that don’t involve the Wildcats have you been to with a packed arena?
So ASU has spent much of this year throwing that “for-profit” shade towards GCU.
In August, ASU President Michael Crow told the Arizona Republic on not scheduling GCU that, “We're not interested in increasing the stock value of a company. We are interested in playing college teams." He also mentioned that only one Pac-12 team (Arizona) has scheduled games with GCU, making it more about the conference rather than themselves.
Crow has been disparaging towards GCU in the past, telling the Arizona Republic in February, “We are against using athletics as a mechanism to make profits. It's contrary to what we're trying to do."
GCU President Brian Mueller clapped back in a letter that can be seen on the university’s website: “Crow was again critical of GCU’s investment model for higher education, erroneously stated that 11 of 12 Pac-12 schools are choosing not to play us in athletic competition and made a false statement that the University views athletics as a means to increase its stock price. During our four-year transition period to NCAA Division I athletics, GCU competed 28 times against 10 of the 12 Pac-12 institutions – and had scheduling discussions with an 11th member. During the upcoming 2017-18 school year, we have 19 games scheduled against seven Pac-12 schools. Universities are free to schedule whoever they want, and we are extremely grateful to these institutions for giving our student-athletes the opportunity to compete against Pac-12 competition.
"... Division I athletics raise the profile of every institution and for ASU’s president to make assumptions about our motives because of our for-profit status is discriminatory and completely inappropriate.”
It’s one thing to have a long standing rivalry between in-state schools occupying the same conference, but to have legit beef between the school’s presidents is another. Which might be behind the UA-GCU fan alliance.