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Journey to Division I: Barstool’s Season Inside Grand Canyon University Basketball Vol. 2

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This will be a season-long blog featuring Grand Canyon University. We will have weekly journal entries bringing you inside access to Grand Canyon University during their first year eligible for postseason at the Division I level. The blogs will be bringing you weekly experiences from the team, staff and fans. 

Vol. 1: Click here 

For some the idea of being the first to do something can be scary. For others the challenge is exciting enough to leave what seems to be an ideal situation in order to go to the unknown. That’s what Casey Benson is doing – well, to a degree. See, Casey was a starter and saw serious minutes during his three years at Oregon, which resulted in an Elite Eight and Final Four trip. However, he decided for his final year to try the unknown.

Casey announced this summer that he was going to be a grad transfer and head back home – to Grand Canyon University. But is it the unknown? Casey grew up in Tempe, a mere 30 minute drive down the freeway from campus. In addition, his brother, TJ, who also transferred to Grand Canyon during his playing days, is an assistant coach,- and was the main recruiter during Casey’s transfer process.

“It was funny, he wanted me to come to GCU but also what was best for me,” Casey said to me on the phone earlier this week.  “We had to find that happy medium. He didn’t pressure me or anything like that, but he was like any other coach recruiting me. He wanted me to commit to Grand Canyon bad. Being recruited by your brother or a family member isn’t something that many get to experience, it’s a cool thing.” 

For TJ, who is 9 years older than Casey, the cool thing isn’t just coaching his brother, but being able to help build a foundation of this program along with it. TJ started his playing career at Weber State before transferring to Grand Canyon when they were still a Division II program. He’s now entering his sixth season as an assistant coach for the Antelopes and has been able to see the program develop into a contender for the NCAA Tournament. As someone who is out recruiting and one the main recruiters on staff, that always wasn’t the easy part.

During the transition period to Division I, Grand Canyon had to find grad transfers, like Casey, who could help them contend but without the NCAA Tournament as a goal, they had to sell them on something else. The selling point became easier four years ago when Grand Canyon hired Dan Majerle as their head coach and had Jerry Colangelo create the School of Sports Business on campus.

“The pitch we threw at junior college guys and grad transfers is if you come here you can be a guy that gets on the floor right away and we can help you play professionally if that’s your goal,” TJ told me. “Coach Majerle has contacts all over the professional basketball world, so we just had to find our niche of players who wanted to help build something and I’m grateful for those that did. It says a lot about those guys to go 81-45 over the last four years.”

Now that the foundation is there, the Benson brothers are looking to make history by making the NCAA Tournament. Casey mentioned that if it wasn’t a realistic opportunity, he wouldn’t have come to Grand Canyon. Remember, this is a guy that saw all sorts of team success while at Oregon. He played with NBA caliber teammates. He won two Pac-12 regular season title. He won a Pac-12 Tournament. He made an Elite Eight and a Final Four. You don’t leave that sort of success unless you think there’s potential at the new landing spot.

It was no easy decision to leave Oregon, Casey said. He had to weigh everything and ultimately decided that coming home was the right decision. In fact it’s sort of a family tradition as TJ made the move and they have a sister who started her soccer career at Oregon State before finishing up at Grand Canyon. Despite all that, Casey never pictured himself as a grad transfer when he started his career three years ago.

“It’s absolutely tough to leave and I’m incredibly grateful for my time at Oregon,” Casey said. “I never thought I’d be a grad transfer and it just sort of happened. However, the unique thing is how it’s all circling back around. I came home for the Final Four last year when it was here in Phoenix and now I’m coming home for my final season. Man, I’m just excited.”

You can tell during conversations with both of the Benson brothers that there is excitement – that’s the only way to describe the atmosphere around this program. TJ mentioned he knew the feeling of the program shifted in year three. The Lopes went on a 12-game winning streak that propelled them to a 27-7 year. During that streak they beat the likes of San Diego State, Houston and Marshall. That started to get GCU some media love and the student fan base started to really embrace this team and the potential.

That 12-game winning streak can be looked at as the jumping off point when it comes to this year’s team and the chance to make the NCAA Tournament. As for the coaching staff and players, they know that’s the goal. They aren’t shy about it. However, there has to be a challenge to focus on the small details in order to make the NCAA Tournament. One of those things is coaching up the players, including his own brother. TJ said it’s been relatively easy, but he does have to remind himself at times to let others coach him too.

Photo from GCU

Photo from GCU

“We’ve always been each other’s biggest fan, so we know each other’s games,” TJ said. “But there times at practice where I have to step back and not be so negative on him. I let our coaching staff, who are great, coach him up. I’ll tell them I went at him pretty good today, you guys go talk to him. The thing with Casey is he just wants to be coached. He embraces everyone and wants to get better.”

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Grand Canyon hasn’t had a player with as a big of a name as Casey, which will only help the development of the program. He chose Grand Canyon over Wisconsin, where he went on a visit during the transfer process. He also had talked to the likes of Butler, Georgetown, Wake Forest and Seton Hall. For him though, it was all about one thing.

Coming home.

“It’s a different challenge, but it’s special to be coming home and having my brother on staff,” Casey said. “Coming to play for Coach Majerle, he knows what it takes to be successful at the highest level. How can that not be enticing? As for coming home, everyone is excited. My parents can come watch both their sons at one time and I’m just having fun being back and getting ready for the season.”