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WAC Preview Q&A: Jim Hayford talks building at Seattle, transfers and more

The second-year coach is coming off a 20-win debut, and looking for more in 2018-19.

NCAA Basketball: Seattle at St. Mary’s John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

In a profession full of colorful characters, Jim Hayford still stands out.

The second-year Seattle coach started his career by building a Division III power. From there, he ended up as the self-described “only Division I basketball coach who went to college on a soccer scholarship.” Along the way he leaned on Rick Majerus, and wrote a moving public letter to his longtime mentor after Majerus passed way in 2012.

Hayford was kind enough to spend time previewing the Redhawks upcoming season, and the WAC in general, last week. Here’s what he had to say:

On revisiting the potential of the SU program heading into his second year:

[When Hayford was hired last summer he touted Seattle’s upside, stating that he didn’t feel it was a lateral move from Eastern Washington, where he’d spent six seasons.]

Jim Hayford: “You wouldn’t expect me to tell you anything different, but I’ll tell you why I’m even more encouraged than a year ago. We had immediate success. We’ve gotten some good players in here, our fan base is energized, they’ve been great giving and supporting the program. On campus people are just encouraged, there’s just a fresh excitement about the team. Even bigger than this, when I got hired I had no idea they were going to do a $750 million remodel of our home court, and so two years from now we’re going to have as amazing a home court as anyone in NCAA Division I basketball.”

On the Redhawks’ arena situation, and how to cultivate student engagement with an off-campus facility:

[SU will split games between the on-campus Redhawk Center and ShoWare Center in suburban Kent this season while KeyArena undergoes a renovation in the city’s pursuit of an NHL and/or NBA team.]

JH: “Ultimately we’re going to have a state-of-the-art arena on campus. But we want to have the best of both worlds, and the best example of that is the school that’s won two of the last three national championships, Villanova. They’ve got a great on-campus arena, but also share an arena with an NBA team. Ultimately that’s where we’re headed to in our big vision for the program, in the meantime if you win, they will come. There are plenty of different programs that say, ‘hey we’ve got a big facility and can’t fill it.’ But if you’re winning, you’ve got excitement and support, and I don’t see anybody who says it’s a problem having a big facility then. Some of these schools are 10, 15, 20 miles away. In our case it’s less than 2.5 miles.”

On what has stuck with him most from his time at Division III Whitworth University:

[Hayford began his college head coaching career at Whitworth, where he spent 10 seasons racking up 217 wins and six Division III NCAA Tournament appearances. ]

JH: “I was blessed to have a really neat mentoring/brotherhood relationship with Rick Majerus. He encouraged me 20 years ago how much I could grow as a head coach at the small college level, and stayed involved in my life and I’m really grateful for it. I got to develop as a head coach. I’m not saying that’s better than the path taken by most Division I head coaches, which is that you’re an assistant for a long time. That was the best path for me, and I’m glad I had somebody so successful in the profession to encourage me in that. Now that I look at it, two examples in last year’s national championship game: Jay Wright, who’s mentored under Rollie Massimino and John Beilein, who’s a lot more like the path I’ve taken. Maybe one’s not better than the other, but for me the path I took was the right one, and I’m grateful I took that way. I’m in a chance this year with 19 years, 380 wins, maybe we can get 20 wins and I’ll be 20 years, 400 wins. By starting head coaching at a young age, it lets me realize something a lot of people maybe never get to realize.”

On Aaron Menzies’ transfer:

[The 7’3’’ center transferred to Saint Mary’s after averaging 26.9 minutes, 11.3 points and 8.9 rebounds per game last year.]

JH: “He really helped us defensively, you’re talking about great size. But his transfer was the way it should be in this transfer crazy Division I basketball. He came to me and said, ‘hey I look at the strengths of the team and who’s coming back, and my strengths as a player and I’ve got my degree, and would you help me find a program I could spend my last year before my professional career that really prioritizes the big man in the low block.’ Of course I have a great relationship with Randy Bennett, and called Randy and said would you be interested and he said, ‘I think so,’ and we made it happen. I would love to have Aaron back, he’s a great guy, but I like how the whole thing played out.”

On who he sees as the on-court leaders this upcoming season:

JH: “When you look at our roster, you’ve got Matej [Kavas]: returning all-conference player, one of the country’s elite three-point shooters. So we’re trying to develop other parts of his game and I think he’s taken a big step forward. Delante [Jones], conference freshman of the year in the Patriot League, comes to us and takes a year off. He’s a really offensively explosive player, can score off the shot, drive and post up. But hey let’s make him a better decision maker, passer and defensive player, and he’s bought into all those things. And Myles Carter, who did not take advantage of a great opportunity at Seton Hall. But he comes here and develops personal discipline, buys into gaining maturity and now I think he has an opportunity at the mid-major level to be a dominant post player. So we’re kind of building off those three guys.”

On the impact the now-eligible transfers had while sitting out last season:

[In addition to Jones and Carter, SMU transfer guard Dashawn McDowell is eligible after sitting out last year.]

JH: “We had an awesome scout team everyday. A lot of times you’re going against a scout team and it might be four or five walk ons, but we had guys we could teach the other team’s plays to and they were as hard to guard, or better, than a lot of our opponents. It also gave us the whole year to work on their development as players.”

On the impact of beating New Mexico State last season:

[SU picked up a 73-63 overtime win against NMSU on Feb. 17, the first time the Redhawks had beaten the Aggies since 2015.]

JH: “Anytime you beat a really good team, with a really good coach, it’s great. I think it represented the strength of our league, they came into that game at 26th in the nation, and if they won that road trip, they’re nationally ranked. And they end up going home with losses to us and Utah Valley, which probably helped them in the long run but showed the WAC wasn’t a cake walk. So it was good for the whole league. I thought it gave us great confidence to go play in our semifinal game against them at the WAC Tournament, which was the best game of the tournament. What it did for our program was say, ‘hey here’s a really good top-30 team in the country, and when we play together and play smart and play hard, we can play with anybody.’ So it was nice to get that tangible result early for our guy’s confidence.”

On the upside of the WAC as a conference:

JH: “You’ve got a conference where basketball is the main sport for every one of those schools. New Mexico State is the only other one with a football program and basketball is king at New Mexico State. So you’re going to get not just every program and athletic department’s best shot, but every university’s best shot. That’s one of the reasons you’ve seen the conference’s RPI jump from 30 to 14. Other thing worth recognizing is of the eight teams in the conference last year, in the last two years seven of the eight have been in the postseason. The WAC is a very strong mid-major conference.”

On what a successful season would look like in 2018-19:

JH: “First and foremost each player has gotten a lot better. And then second, is the enjoyment level at the end of the season really high for everyone that’s part of the program and then did we approve our win totals, because they do keep score. And we want to be a perennial postseason, so did we do better with our postseason.”