The fourth-seeded Redhawks (19-12, 8-6 WAC), who take on fifth-seeded Rio Grande Valley in the opening round Thursday, will need to be at their best to win the WAC tournament, with the winner of Saturday’s title game getting a berth into the NCAA tournament.

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Under first-year coach Jim Hayford, Seattle University’s men’s basketball team has won more games than in any season since returning to Division I in 2009. As his team enters the Western Athletic Conference tournament in Las Vegas, Hayford says the Redhawks want more.

“I look at it now as the opportunity for us to go have the most amount of fun and showcase ourselves,” Hayford said. “I just want to make sure my team doesn’t go down there and squeeze too hard, but instead go down there and just enjoy being them at their best.”

The fourth-seeded Redhawks (19-12, 8-6 WAC), who take on fifth-seeded Rio Grande Valley in the opening round Thursday, will need to be at their best to win the WAC tournament, with the winner of Saturday’s title game getting a berth into the NCAA tournament.

Seattle has defeated six of the seven conference opponents in Hayford’s first season, with Grand Canyon being the lone exception. Seattle’s only consecutive losses in conference play came when it finished on a three-game losing streak, but SU owns an impressive 7-1 record in games decided by six points or fewer.

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Hayford said he believes his team’s consistency in close games comes down to his players sacrificing for each other. He was quick to point out the team isn’t driven by one standout player.

“It’s a different guy who made the big basket, it’s a different guy who made the free throws, made the defensive stop,” said Hayford. “(It’s) a tribute to all those guys being on the same page.”

Sophomore guard Morgan Means agreed.

“When you really get into a battle with people that you actually care about and want to succeed with, it does motivate you to give it that extra, even if you don’t have anything left,” Means said. “You really want to do it for other people, and being around other people who feel the same way, it’s all motivation to get the job done.”

The season hasn’t been without its ups and downs, however. After averaging 82.5 points in their nonconference schedule, the Redhawks averaged just 68.5 against the more physical WAC defenses. But their own defense, which had been problematic in their nonconference schedule, allowing 72.7 points per game, improved to 69.4 PPG against conference opponents.

Now, the Redhawks are trying to get both sides of the ball on a roll.

“That’s the million-dollar question,” Hayford said. He admitted that he spent most of the nonconference schedule installing the offensive system he wanted to run, which might have fed into the team’s slow defensive start.

“In conference play it was more game-planning on how to stop opponents, and the bulk of our practice time kind of turned to that,” Hayford said, explaining Seattle’s defensive improvement.

Means agreed and said that the new coaching staff has helped him most with his defense and toughness.

“I’ve been able to see great leadership this whole year, and it’s allowed me to improve that in myself,” said Means. “I’m a much better finisher at all three levels this year. I didn’t start out that way, but down the home stretch, I feel like I have.”

After coaching Eastern Washington in the Big Sky Conference for the previous six seasons, a conference known more for its outside shooting, Hayford said he has had to adjust to a conference in which almost every team has a strong, physical inside presence.

Means wasn’t willing to blame the team’s recent offensive struggles on that.

“We’re getting a lot of the same looks we got all season, it’s just a matter of putting the ball in the basket,” Means said. “Just finishing plays.”

Hayford isn’t concerned about his team’s recent offensive slump entering the tournament. He believes the key to winning is continuing to defend, and to shoot the ball like his players have shown they can. Ultimately, Hayford sees the tournament as an excellent opportunity for his players to showcase themselves.

“Every single one of these guys, their dream was ‘can I be a part of March Madness,’ so what can I do to help make their dreams come true?” said Hayford. “I try to coach in a direction that leads to that. This is what you can do to have your dreams come true.”

Even if the Redhawks don’t make it to March Madness this year, Hayford says he wants each player to have their best year of college basketball.

“Believe in them, coach them hard, and love ’em up,” Hayford said.

That message has resonated with Means, who referred to his teammates as family, and described a sense of accountability they feel to build something they can be proud of together.

“It will be big to give back to the seniors who have given so much to be here, coach Hayford, the coaching staff, just leaving it all out there.” Means said.

To Hayford, the most important thing about Seattle’s tournament experience is “exactly that, the experience,” he said. “Our saying here is ‘Let’s have fun, let’s work hard, and let’s win.’ I want them to go to Las Vegas and do those three things.”