This will be a season unlike any other for Seattle U men’s basketball coach Jim Hayford, and it isn’t just because the team is playing during a pandemic.

“It’s year 22 as a head coach, and it’s the biggest turnover we’ve ever had,” said Hayford, who is in his fourth season at Seattle U. “There are a lot of new faces, but they are all playing well and I am encouraged with their progress. We have a really good freshman class and some talented junior-college players, so it’s time to bring the next batch through.”

The Redhawks, who open the season Wednesday at Idaho, have just four scholarship players back, and 78.6 percent of the points scored last year came from players who are gone. The biggest hit came when guard Terrell Brown, who averaged 20.7 points, 6.2 rebounds and 4.2 assists last season, opted to play for Arizona as a graduate transfer.

“I am really proud of Terrell,” Hayford said. “He graduated and he did everything the right way. He felt that it was the best step to reach his career ambitions. My first and foremost goal with each guy is that they grow as a person, secondly, that they get their degree, and third, that we develop them on the basketball court. We checked all those boxes.”

Ready to take bigger roles this season could be junior Riley Grigsby, a 6-foot-5 guard/forward who was third on the team in scoring (9.7) and rebounding (5.5) last season, and senior guard Aaron Nettles, the former Seattle Prep star who started nine games last season.

“I do expect Riley and Aaron to really step forward and to be team leaders,” Hayford said. “Riley has shown at times that he can be a standout player in the WAC, it’s just a question of consistency, and that’s what I expect him to do as an upperclassman.”

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Three of the team’s new players know each other well, having been teammates at City College of San Francisco. Darrion Trammell, a 5-10 guard, Nate Robinson, a 6-4 forward, and Emeka Udenyi, a 6-foot-6 forward, helped lead City College to a 30-0 record, and Hayford expects all three juniors to play a significant number of minutes this season.

“They’ve been together and they bring chemistry,” Hayford said.

Hayford is expecting to get immediate production from freshmen Viktor Rajkovic, a 6-6 guard, Kobe Williamson, a 6-8 guard, and Vasja Pandza, a 6-8 guard.

Graduate transfers Daron Henson, a 6-8 forward from Washington State, and Jared Pearre, a 6-8 forward from Cal State Northridge, could also be in the mix for playing time.

“I think I know the seven or eight guys who are going to play the most, but what I haven’t figured out yet is what the right combinations between all of them are,” Hayford said. “You don’t get any scrimmages or exhibitions before your first game, so that is going to have to happen on the fly. We planned on doing a foreign tour this summer and we would get 10 extra practices and play five games and bond together, and all that got scrapped.”

Hayford expects the team to be much more balanced this season when it comes to scoring.

“I think Terrell was top 10 in the county in field-goal attempts, and we are going to divide that a little more evenly among guys,” Hayford said.

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The new group will get tested very early, with seven games away from home in a span of 15 days, including at Pac-12 teams Washington and UCLA.

“We’ll use this nonconference (schedule) developing this team and trying to get them ready for the (Western Athletic Conference),” said Hayford, whose team opens WAC play Jan. 15 at home against Utah State. “You always worry when you’re forming a team are they going to lose confidence (playing a tough schedule), but I think these guys have really strong character.”

Hayford thought the Redhawks had a legitimate chance to make the NCAA tournament last year as the No. 3 seed in the Western Athletic Conference tournament, but that event was canceled after the team arrived in Las Vegas to play.

“I think some of the guys are still dealing with it, especially when you have that many seniors who never really got to play their last game of basketball,” Hayford said of the abrupt ending. “Since they canceled the WAC tournament in March, that group has never been in the same room since. It’s always going to be a comma for them at the end of their college career and not a period or an exclamation point.”

Hayford said he is enjoying being back on the court, working with a group he feels is talented, will shoot the ball better and has more depth. Seattle U was picked to finish fifth in the nine-team WAC and Hayford thinks the team could exceed those expectations.

Regardless, he is thrilled that this season won’t count for eligibility purposes, giving players a potential extra year to play,

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“I am trying to focus on the process of using this as a bonus year in laying a really good foundation,” Hayford said. “I do know that in time this is going to turn into a really solid and successful group.”

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Three keys to the Seattle U men’s season

Keeping the faith  

The Redhawks open with seven games away from home in 15 days, and they will likely be underdogs in several of those games, including at UCLA and at Washington. Whatever happens, it’s important the young team doesn’t lose its confidence heading into the Western Athletic Conference season in April. 

Improve from long range  

Coach Jim Hayford’s teams usually shoot a high percentage of three-pointers, and the Redhawks must be more accurate than they were last season. The team made 30.8 percent of its three-point attempts, easily the worst mark in Hayford’s three seasons at Seattle U. The team also needs to improve on last year’s 40.6 percent mark from the field overall. 

Develop a strong foundation 

The Redhawks have just one senior (Aaron Nettles) and no one loses a year of eligibility this season. Hayford wants to win this season, but he sees even bigger things ahead, and what happens this season can be the start of that.