The Phoenix Suns home, Talking Stick Resort Arena, will be rocking with over 15,000 rowdy college basketball fans when Arizona battles #7 Texas A&M and Grand Canyon plays St. John’s in the nationally televised Valley of the Sun Shootout tonight starting at 7pm on ESPN2 and ESPN U. Unlike many neutral site locations, expect the Valley of the Sun to produce a rowdy atmosphere since the games feature two of best fan bases and student sections in all of College Basketball in their home states.  The Zona Zoo produces PAC-12’s rowdiest environment and will lead the caravan from Tucson to downtown Phoenix.  GCU fans and their student section, the Havocs whom SB Nation tagged as the “Biggest party in college basketball,” will only have to travel 15 minutes to the arena.  GCU is one of college basketball’s most promising rising programs, and the Lopes will be featured on a national stage during their first year of postseason eligibility.

The event will showcase projected top 5 NBA draft pick DeAndre Ayton from Arizona, who will face a big test while being matched up against another lottery-level talent in Texas A&M star power forward Robert Williams.

The GCU and St. John’s game will reinvigorate a former rivalry between two former NBA All Stars who will now try to out coach each other on the sidelines. GCU coach Dan Majerle will make his first return to the Talking Stick Resort Arena where he is enshrined as a Ring of Honor member for the Phoenix Suns.  He is faced up against St. John’s coach Chris Mullin, who made 5 All Star appearances while playing with the Golden State Warriors.  

Arizona vs # 7 Texas A&M:

The Wildcats and the Aggies are trending in opposite directions. The Aggies look like the hottest team in basketball, while Arizona is playing like the coldest.  After losing three consecutive games in the Bahamas, the Wildcats became the first #2 ranked team to drop to from the polls in a single week. The Wildcats rebounded from their Thanksgiving Bahamas trip by picking up wins against Long Beach St, and surviving a 91-88 overtime scare against UNLV.   If the Wildcats trip to the Bahamas would have gone differently, the opening game of the Valley of the Sun Shootout may have featured a matchup between two top ten teams.  

Despite a slow start, the Wildcats have an opportunity to get their season back on track with a victory over the #7 ranked Aggies. In order to upset the Aggies Tuesday night, Arizona will need another spectacular performance from their dynamic duo of Allonzo Trier and DeAndre Ayton. Ayton and Trier have scored 51.7 percent of Arizona’s points through eight games.  Trier has been a dynamic scorer with 23.9 points on 57% shooting while Ayton has been a beast down low averaging 20 points and 11 rebounds. Unfortunately, Arizona has not gotten many contributions from anyone else. They will need Serbian center Dusan Ristic to step up big time against Texas A&M’s intimidating frontcourt.

Since opening the season with an 88-65 rout over then ranked #11 West Virginia, the Aggies have kept on rolling. They are 7-0 and have won every game by double digits. Texas A&M has picked up significant wins over Oklahoma St, Penn St, and a recent 75-59 road win at USC.  Texas A&M is just a one point favorite against the Wildcats, and they are playing what is essentially a watered down road game in Phoenix.

The Aggies have dominated opponents with their lengthy front court featuring Robert Williams, Dj Hogg, and Tyler Davis.  The big trio makes up the best frontcourt in the country and each of them are nearly averaging double-doubles. The Aggies’ length has tortured opposing teams defensively,  producing the No. 4 defense in the country per Texas A&M is allowing just 89.1 points per 100 possessions and opposing teams are only shooting 36.1 percent against them this season.

Robert Williams and Tyler Davis give the Aggies the best frontcourt in college basketball, even though Arizona might have the best frontcourt player in college basketball in Ayton. This is a matchup featuring two very good teams who have the potential to make a Final Four run in march.  Arizona alumni should fill Talking Stick Resort in Phoenix, but will their support be able to help the Wildcats upset the Aggies? The matchup will be broadcasted on ESPN 2 and will be commentated by the great Bill Walton. The Aggies are playing as well as anyone in the country right now, and even with crowd backing, Arizona is not playing well enough to beat a team of their caliber. Aggies win a close one in the Desert 71-69

GCU vs St. John’s:

The second game of the double header features a very intriguing matchup between the Grand Canyon Antelopes and the St. John’s Red Storm at 9pm EST on ESPNU. The highlight of the matchup will be centered on head coaches Dan Majerle and Chris Mullins, former NBA All-Stars. This matchup features one of the most improved power 5 teams in the country against the fastest growing college athletics program in the nation. The Lopes are 5.5 point underdogs playing in their biggest game in program history against a St. John’s team that will be without their second leading scorer.

GCU will have their first national breakout party in their first season of Division 1 postseason eligibility and will look to earn the biggest victory in program history against a very streaky St. John’s team. Dan Majerle has coached GCU over the entire course of their Division 1 life span, turning GCU into one of the nation’s top emerging programs and molding the Lopes into the next premier mid major program. GCU has had 2 consecutive 20 win seasons and they’re selected to finish first in the conference in a WAC preseason poll.

GCU will be playing their first game away from home, but will only have to travel 8 miles from campus.  Dan Majerle will also have an emotional home coming returning to a place where he spent 14 years at as a player and where his image is painted in the rafters in the Sun’s Ring of Honor.

The Lopes are 6-1 so far on the season claiming all 6 wins by double digits. The Lopes have been very impressive on the defensive side of the ball ranking 6th in scoring defense allowing just 58.5 points per game. The Lopes rank 9th in defensive field goal efficiency, and 8th in turnover percentage averaging a turnover on 26% of their possessions per Kenpom.  Offensively, the Lopes are lead by senior Josh Braun who leads the team in scoring with 15.4 points per game.  Braun will likely be matched against Arizona transfer Justin Simon who ranks 5th nationally in steals percentage and is one of top 50 players overall in defensive efficiency.  Oregon graduate transfer Casey Benson has been a key addition to the team averaging 11.4 points, 4.7 rebounds, and 5.7 assists per contest. In order for the Lopes to win, GCU will rely on steady point guard Casey Benson to take care of the ball against one of most potent turnover forcing teams in the county.

The Lopes will be tested by a St.John’s team that has made significant improvements over the past few years. St.John’s head coach Chris Mullins is entering his third year coaching his alma mater. Chris Mullins looking to turn the corner in his third year of rebuilding the program; the Johnnies went 7-24 in year one and 14-27 in year two. However,  St.Johns is off to a hot 7-1 start with key wins over UCF and Nebraska. This is the Johnnies third neutral site game of the season and they split their previous two.  St.Johns has excelled on the defensive side of the ball ranking 29th in overall defensive efficiency and third in overall turnover percentage.

St. John’s is led by talented sophomore guard Shamorie Ponds, who is tops on the team in points and assists with 19.5 points per game and 5.0 assists. When the athletic St. John’s team is not flying across the court in transition, the offense is typically centered around the creativity of Ponds. He is arguably the best two-way player in the Big East and can create scoring opportunities in many different ways.  Look for Ponds to take an even bigger role in the St.John’s offense since second leading scorer Marcus Lovett has been ruled as inactive. Stopping Ponds will be the Lopes number one priority on Tuesday night.

Overall, this is one of the most interesting matchups of the college basketball season so far, and it is unfortunately not getting the national media coverage it deserves. The matchup features two NBA greats turned college coaches. 

Even without Lovett, this will be the most athletic and talented team GCU has faced thus far. GCU has been great defensively, but they will need to drastically improve on the offensive side of the ball. The Lopes have been in a depressing shooting slump, sitting at 13.5% (8-59) from the three-point line in their last two games. This is very uncharacteristic for a Dan Majerle coached team and the Lopes should perform a lot better on the offensive side of the ball.

With local crowd support of the Havocs and motivation of a big game, the Lopes should be able to hang around with a short handed St. John’s team that is playing after cross country travel. If the Lopes are able to take care of the ball and limit St.John’s scoring in transition, the Lopes should be able to cover the 5.5 points and will have a chance to claim their biggest win in program history. I’m a little biased but I’ll claim a Lopes win outright, 72-70.

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