The Redhawks played well only in spurts, and that wasn’t nearly good enough to beat New Mexico State, which will be making its fourth straight Big Dance appearance later this week.
LAS VEGAS — It would have been a heck of a story.
It would have been too good of one, it now seems.
In its first conference title game since returning to Division I seven years ago, the Seattle University men’s basketball team needed one incredible performance Saturday night to advance to the NCAA tournament. But the Redhawks played well only in spurts, and that wasn’t nearly good enough to beat New Mexico State, which will be making its fourth straight Big Dance appearance later this week.
The Aggies, with their full-court pressure and massive frontcourt, beat Seattle U 80-61 in the Western Athletic Conference tournament final at Orleans Arena. Instead of a victory that would’ve reintroduced the program to the rest of the aloof world, the Redhawks settled for the experience of being so close to nirvana.
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It’s a valuable consolation that Seattle U will appreciate once the disappointment lessens. The program should now have an even greater thirst to perform at a championship level. The Redhawks learned what it takes to be near the top of the WAC this season, and in New Mexico State, they have met the standard they must match.
“It’s good for the grind of your program, for the development of it,” Seattle U coach Cameron Dollar said. “Now, guys have gotten a taste of it. Now, they’re going to want more.”
The Aggies advanced to their sixth NCAA tournament in the past nine years. Current coach Marvin Menzies is making his fifth appearance in eight years. The Aggies own the WAC, and they have a very distinct style of play — with aggressive, athletic, physical and tall (five players at least 6 foot 8, three of them 6-10 or bigger), athletes playing with great energy — that the rest of the conference must learn to handle.
Seattle U can compete with New Mexico State, and the Redhawks had some good stretches after falling behind 9-0 to start the game. They never led, however. And though Seattle U handed the Aggies their only WAC loss of the season with a 58-52 victory at KeyArena on Jan. 17, there’s still a striking difference in the talent level of the two teams.
It’s especially evident in the frontcourt, where New Mexico State has great size, length and skill. That’s also where the Redhawks were missing Deshaun Sunderhaus, their best big man, who has suffered a torn ACL in back-to-back seasons. Overall, the Aggies have a solid Division I roster. The Redhawks are several years from having that kind of personnel.
Their reputation must grow so they can recruit better. They can’t have any lapses in player development because they’re in the business of taking late bloomers and under-recruited players right now. In every aspect of the program, the coaching staff must work much harder and smarter than others until the gap is bridged.
Beyond that, the Redhawks need to be lucky.
There wasn’t enough luck in Vegas to beat the Aggies on Saturday.
But Seattle U got a glimpse of championship basketball. The Redhawks won’t have all-conference senior guards Isiah Umipig and Jarell Flora next season, but 10 of the 14 players currently on the roster will return, including everyone in the frontcourt except for senior Shore Adenekan.
Guard Jadon Cohee, who had a promising freshman season, must develop into a consistent scorer to lead the backcourt next season. If Cohee takes another step and sophomore Manny Chibuogwu continues to improve, and freshman Jack Shaughnessy (redshirted this year) lives up to his reputation as a shooter, Seattle U should be able to stay competitive. And that’s before vetting the incoming recruiting class.
Seattle U finished Dollar’s sixth season with a 16-15 record. Dollar is 77-103 since replacing Joe Callero. For those who have grown impatient with the coach and how long the project is taking, you must consider this is just the third year the Redhawks have been eligible for the NCAA tournament.
During the first four years of this transition, the program felt fortunate for every commitment it received because the players were essentially competing for pride and Seattle U’s future. The caliber of player Seattle U can recruit should improve moving forward.
But let’s not undervalue the players who have gotten them this far. Seattle U needed this run. It was good for the program’s morale. Umipig elevated the program during his two seasons. Flora came a long way to turn into an all-conference guard. The Redhawks have so much work left to do. Still, they should take a moment to reflect on what they achieved during this tournament run.
“I know we’ve come a long ways,” Umipig said. “It’s a testament to our grind. People don’t see what we went through, how we handled the ups and downs and stayed together. They don’t see how tough we are and how together we are. I’m proud of this team.”
Umipig isn’t the only one proud.