UK Men's Basketball

Cats' opening opponent, led by ex-NBA star Dan Majerle, hoping to emulate Kentucky program

Chicago Bulls' Michael Jordan (23) attempts to defend against Miami Heat's Dan Majerle during second period action at the Miami Arena Wednesday Nov. 6, 1996. Jordan scored 48 points against the Heat.(AP Photo/Alan Diaz)
Chicago Bulls' Michael Jordan (23) attempts to defend against Miami Heat's Dan Majerle during second period action at the Miami Arena Wednesday Nov. 6, 1996. Jordan scored 48 points against the Heat.(AP Photo/Alan Diaz) Associated Press

Grand Canyon University is a private Christian school in Phoenix with an enrollment of about 8,500 students. Its men's basketball program began a four-year transition from Division II to Division I last season. Kentucky basketball seems about as big a high-low contrast to Grand Canyon as the Appalachian Mountains compared to, well, the Grand Canyon. Or, if you prefer, one is a lush bluegrass of basketball accomplishment while the other is a desert.

Yet for all the obvious differences in programs that will compete head-to-head Friday in Rupp Arena, UK and Grand Canyon share one important trait: Each uses NBA connections as a primary recruiting tool.

"A lot of these kids have aspirations of playing basketball after college," Grand Canyon Coach Dan Majerle said during a telephone conversation this week. "My thing is I know what it takes to do that, both mentally and physically. I've been through it myself."

Of course, Majerle (pronounced Marley) played 14 seasons in the NBA. After a stint as a television analyst, he was an assistant coach for 5 1/2 seasons with the Phoenix Suns before becoming Grand Canyon coach in 2013.

A three-time All-Star, "Thunder Dan," as he was known as an NBA player, tells prospects that he can help them get to the NBA. (What coach inside New Circle Road does that sound like?)

"I just say I'll give them the opportunity if they're good enough to do that," Majerle said. "I can open a lot of doors. I can teach them what it takes to get there, and if that's what they want to do, they'll have a chance at it at Grand Canyon."

When it was suggested that all players think they can advance to the NBA, Majerle said, "Everybody does think that."

As for Friday night and the foreseeable future, Grand Canyon merely hopes to someday emulate Kentucky's example of attracting top-level players and winning a high percentage of games.

"We don't have any preconceived notions that we can go in there and win the game," Majerle said. "We're going to go in there and just try to compete and build on what we're trying to do."

Later this season, Grand Canyon plays at Indiana. "Good competition like that just bolsters our recruiting tool," Majerle said.

Noting that he'd heard Kentucky might be the third-biggest team in the NBA, Majerle said, "Their size is overwhelming. The talent is overwhelming. Literally 10 pro prospects."

After his team lost to Kentucky by 69 points on Sunday, Georgetown College Coach Chris Briggs suggested UK on a good night was comparable to an NBA playoff team.

"That's a little far-fetched," Majerle said. "We can all agree they're superior in talent. But NBA? That's full-grown men, and these are still college kids and they have a long way to go. Having played in the NBA for 14 years, that's a whole different animal."

Majerle, 49, grew up in Traverse City, Mich., playing whatever sport was in season and not dreaming of a pro career in any of them. Baseball was his favorite sport, but his basketball skill developed to a far greater degree. Michigan and Michigan State asked him to wait until after his high school senior season to make a college choice. But Majerle instead committed to Central Michigan. Even though he needed back surgery early in his college career, Majerle eventually played well enough to see the school retire his jersey.

"I often say if I went to a bigger school, sometimes you can get recruited over," he said. "And Central kind of waited on me, and I got a lot of playing time and was able to really grow from my freshman to senior years."

Majerle said he did not think about a pro career until his junior season.

"Then in my senior year, I still wasn't sure," he said. "Back then, it wasn't the one-and-done kind of thing. You continued to work hard, and it all kind of fell in place."

Not that Majerle is one of those people who thinks things were better in the good old days.

"I'd love to have one," he said of one-and-done players. "You got any you can give me?"

When it was suggested Kentucky might have a surplus of such players, Majerle said, "They do have a surplus there.

"I think it's fine. It's great. That's a good opportunity for kids. They can always go back and get their education. But, yeah, I'd be all for it if I could get one."

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