The Iowa Hawkeyes are officially in the NCAA Tournament and have earned their highest seed since 1987. As a 2 seed, they are rewarded for a successful regular season with what is viewed as a favorable first round matchup on paper.
But what exactly does that matchup look like? We got into that a bit on Monday morning as we explored Iowa’s path to a Final Four in this historic season. Grand Canyon is no pushover and they’ll be one of very few teams in the entire tournament with the size down low to matchup with the National Player of the Year Luka Garza.
We’ll get into more detail as the game approaches, but with the matchup still fresh, here’s a crash course in the Grand Canyon Antelopes.
School: Grand Canyon
Location: Phoenix, Arizona
Conference: Western Athletic Conference
Record: 17-6, 17-6 (conference-only schedule)
Coach: Bryce Drew, 1st season
NCAA Tournament History: 1st appearance
G - Jovan Blacksher, Jr. (So)
Jovan Blacksher, Jr. is a 5’11”, 155 pound point guard who leads the Antelopes in minutes played and assists. He’s a sophomore from Oakland, California and a product of Shadow Mountain.
G - Mikey Dixon (RS Sr)
Fellow guard Mikey Dixon is a glue guy for the Lopes. The 6’2”, 165 pound redshirt senior averages 8.5 points a game, but shoots just under 28% from beyond the arc and has an assist-to-turnover ratio of 1.6. Dixon is from New Castle, Delaware and originally went to Quinnipiac out of high school. He earned MAAC Rookie of the Year honors in 2016-2017 as a starter before transferring to St. John’s. He sat out the 2017-2018 season before earning a role as the 6th man in 2018, playing in the first 14 games. He then transferred to Grand Canyon at semester in 2019.
F - Oscar Frayer (RS Sr)
Wing Oscar Frayer is another glue guy for GCU. At 6’6” and 195 pounds, he has good size on the edge to defend a guy like Joe Wieskamp. Frayer averages 6.5 points a game on 41% shooting from the floor and 35% from beyond the arc. He also averages 2.5 boards and 1.5 assists per game.
C - Alessandro Lever (Sr)
Big man Alessandro Lever is one of the Lopes’ twin towers in the middle. At 6’10” and 235 pounds, Lever is an imposing force in the middle as the second threat. The Italian native is second on the team in scoring at 13.3 points per game while shooting over 39% from beyond the arc while leading the team in 3-point makes. Like the Hawkeyes with Garza and Nunge on the floor together, Lever presents a matchup problem for opponents who need to account for him both inside and out.
C - Asbjorn Midtgaard (Sr)
But the real force on the inside is Denmark native Asbjorn Midtgaard. The senior spent his first three seasons with the Wichita State Shockers before transferring to GCU this season. The 7’0” 270-pounder leads the Lopes in scoring and rebounding at 14.0 points and 9.9 rebounds per game. He has the size and physicality to match up with Luka Garza in the middle with his twin tower Lever spacing the floor.
Points: Asbjorn Midtgaard - 14.0
Rebounds: Asbjorn Midtgaard - 9.9
Assists: Jovan Blacksher Jr. - 5.3
Steals: Jovan Blacksher Jr. - 1.6
Blocks: Asbjorn Midtgaard - 1.3
FG%: Asbjorn Midtgaard - 70.6%
3PT%: Rashad Smith - 46.7%
KenPom AdjO: 142nd
KenPom AdjD: 74th
GCU is relatively new to the Division 1 ranks. The Lopes were previously an NAIA (where they have three national championships from the ‘70s and ‘80s) and NCAA Division II program before making the jump in 2013 on a provisional basis. In 2017, the NCAA officially moved the school to Division I status. It didn’t take long for GCU to get up to speed at the next level. The Antelopes punched their first NCAA Tournament ticket in 2021, but had made the Western Athletic Conference Tournament Championship game each of the last three seasons under head coach Dan Majerle.
Majerle was let go after last season and replaced by Bryce Drew, formerly of Valparaiso and more recently Vanderbilt. Interestingly, Drew was actually recruited by Fran McCaffery when he was an assistant at Notre Dame and Drew was a prep at Valparaiso High School in Indiana. Another fun fact for Hawkeye fans, current Big Ten commissioner Kevin Warren played for the Lopes. He averaged 23.3 points per game as a senior for GCU in 1985-86.
As for the 2020-2021 group, it’s certainly not lacking in diversity. A full 40% of the team’s roster has come to GCU by way of transfer. They’ve got players from Wichita State (Midtgaard), St. John’s (Dixon) Oregon State (Sean Miller-Moore), Weber State (Dima Zdor), Southeast Missouri State (Gabe McGlothan) and Pima Community College (Smith). But they also have an international flavor, boasting players from Canada (Miller-Moore), Ukraine (Zdor), Australia (Jayden Stone), Italy (Lever) and Denmark (Midtgaard).
In terms of team composition, as our very own Matt Reisener pointed out, this could be a difficult matchup for the Hawkeyes.
Grand Canyon is led by its senior twin towers of Asbjorn Midtgaard (7’0”) and Alessandro Lever (6’10”) who combine for over 27 points per game... Grand Canyon’s true strength lies in its defense. The Antelopes allow only 61.9 points per game, the ninth fewest in college basketball. Midtgaard is an imposing paint protector who can wall up against fellow bigs and contest the shots of driving guards, and the Antelopes’ defensive rebounding prowess (their 29.6 boards per game are the eight most in the sport) prevents opponents from getting many second shot opportunities.
The Lopes have three players 6’10” or taller to throw at Garza on the defensive end of the floor. On offense, the duo of Midtgaard and Lever will be able to go at him in waves to potentially get him in foul trouble. And the perimeter players play solid on ball defense which could give Iowa trouble in finding open looks from beyond the arc.
But it’s not all bad news. While GCU has had a very good year, winning both the regular season and conference tournament in the WAC, they’ve also not really been tested. The Lopes played just two games against Power 6 conference opponents, losing to both Arizona State and Colorado.
In total, GCU has played only one Q1 or Q2 game this year and have gone 2-3 in games outside of Q4. They have the potential to give Iowa fits, but the Hawkeyes are more than capable of giving opponents fits of their own.
The Lopes have yet to face a team the caliber of Iowa and nobody in the country can replicate what Luka Garza brings to the table. We’ll see Saturday evening whether Iowa’s difficult regular season schedule has prepared them for a tall task in round one of the NCAA Tournament.