Jim Hayford is hesitant to call it a superstition, but it’s something he’s done before nearly every game in this college basketball season unlike any other.
“I go into every game the two days before thinking, ‘Oh there’s no way we’re gong to keep passing all these tests,’” the fourth-year Seattle coach said. “So I’ll put out a tweet saying, ‘we’re COVID-free, game on,’ just to kind of ride that wave of be positive, test negative.”
Hayford has gotten to hit send on that tweet plenty over the last six weeks.
The Redhawks have been able to play 11 non-conference games, with a 12th scheduled on Saturday. That bushel of games is among the most any team has been able to manage in this hectic season, with just five other schools — Northwestern State, Sam Houston State, Liberty, Saint Mary’s, BYU — hitting the court for that many games outside of league play.
The upcoming date with Division II Saint Martin’s, a last minute fill-in after Chicago State suspended men’s basketball activities, would draw the Redhawks even with North Carolina A&T as the leaders in non-conference games this season. That double digit total is a stark contrast from several of SU’s conference brethren, which have seen swaths of their seasons wiped out due to COVID-19-related cancellations, begging the question: will that be a clear advantage as the calendar flips toward March?
To Hayford, there hasn’t really been a secret sauce to getting on the court.
“The first thing is we’re lucky, we’re fortunate. We get tested all the time, three or four times a week, so if that test next week goes the other direction, it’s not like all of a sudden we started doing something wrong,” he said. “But the guys have been really disciplined about trying to stay in our version of a bubble and being as responsible as possible.”
The veteran coach did point to several things that have helped navigate an environment that is near impossible to understand. Normally, the program would have five or six walk ons with it for practice, but this was put on the shelf in November because, as Hayford put it, the math just made sense to keep a third less people COVID-19 free. That hurt, but he expects those walk ons to be back in this upcoming Winter quarter.
The team also jumped into 2020 with seven games in 17 games, all away from home. They bounced from Portland to Las Vegas for a multi-team event, and then to Southern California for games against UCLA and Long Beach State, before heading back to the Pacific Northwest for a cross-town game against Washington. The team emerged from that frenzy with three wins — including over Portland and Air Force — but also burrowed further into a de facto bubble.
“Those 17 days, at the same time bringing a whole new team together, we were fortunate to get through that with three wins and four losses,” Hayford said. “That whole trip kind of kept us for 17 days in our own pocket of people.”
That the Redhawks (6-5) have seen their schedule play out relatively unscathed is a departure from last year, when they were at the front end of the pandemic’s affect on college basketball. The team was the very first to have games fall off the schedule when Chicago State and Kansas City cancelled games at SU amid the initial coronavirus outbreak in Seattle, primarily linked to a long-term care facility in the metro area.
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They couldn’t know it at the time, but those initial cancellations left Feb. 29, 2020 as the final time last year’s Redhawks would take the court.
That day SU fell to California Baptist in an overtime thriller in Riverside, with star guard Terrell Brown nearly willing a 14-14 team above .500 with 31 points, including a number of baskets in the extra period. The then-junior was the focal point (20.8 PPG) of an offense that had taken off in league play, but opted for a graduate transfer to Arizona following the season. With Brown in Tucson, and four other frequent starters — including guard Morgan Means — out of eligibility, Hayford was more or less left with a blank slate heading into an uncertain campaign
The new group was put to the fire immediately with SU’s opening chunk of games.
One of the brighter spots has been newcomer Darrion Trammell, a point guard from City College of San Francisco recruited to play alongside Brown, but who has instead taken sole reigns of the Redhawks’ attack.
“When you’re the lead guard in our offense, you’re going to have a lot of opportunities to make plays,” Hayford said. “Being the lead guard in our offense is kind of like being a quarterback in Mike Leach’s football offense: you’re going to get a chance to make a lot of plays, and we’ve seen other players who have come through at that position but Darrion has caught on how to lead the offense as well as anyone. He’s a fun guy to coach.”
Trammell has in fact seized on those opportunities.
The point guard leads the WAC in assists per game (6.2) and is 12th nationally in assist rate (41.4%), while still scoring 17.5 points per game himself. His 25-point, 13-assist outing that led SU to a win over Portland on Dec. 30 was the first such performance since Ja Morant went for 27 points and 13 assists against Austin Peay in March of 2019. In general, the list of players to put up numbers like that in recent years is littered with NBA stars (like Morant and Trae Young) and college Player of the Year-type talents, such as Siena’s Jalen Pickett and former Fort Wayne guard Jon Konchar.
That should bode well for the engine that has run SU’s offense, and Trammell has often been flanked by plenty of athletic big men, headlined by senior Riley Grigsby (18.1 PPG, 5.1 RPG). The Redhawks have also gotten good early production from newcomers Jared Pearre, Kobe Williamson and Emeka Udenyi in an offensive system that supports its lead guard with three-point shooting wings and players that create mismatches.
“We don’t have that 6’10 or seven foot post but you go look out there sometimes and we’ll have four 6’8, 6’7 guys with Darrion on the court and it’s just kind of unique,” Hayford said.
That begs the question, will teams that have been able to fit in plenty of non-conference action have a noticeable advantage as many mid-major leagues barrel into conference play?
SU and the WAC may be a particularly good test case. While a new Redhawks team has seen its non-conference game count nearly reach pre-COVID-19 levels, other teams have run into cancellation after cancellation. New Mexico State is the most visible example, having played just three games this season — and just one against Division I competition — amid its relocation to the Arizona Grand Resort in Phoenix due to COVID-19 restrictions in the state of New Mexico.
NMSU had to pause activities on Jan. 4 due to a positive test within the team, just days after it saw a pair of weekend games at UC Riverside fall off the schedule when the Highlanders opted out due to the Aggies’ previous opponent — Cal State Northridge — having had a positive test following the teams’ game. Chris Jans frustration was apparent on Twitter, and he talked about it in a release.
“While it’s very frustrating to pause team activities, our commitment to the health and safety of our student-athletes and staff members is our top priority,” NMSU head coach Chris Jans said. “We are following all of the COVID-19 protocols put in place by NM State and the NCAA in order to maintain a safe environment while we prepare to return to practice and competition.”
Whether the Aggies, the WAC’s heavy favorite and a team working in plenty of new players itself, can shake off the lack of game time to still compete for the league will be a worthy story. As will whether the Redhawks will have a clear leg up on other league foes like Tarleton State and CBU that have played less than half as many games as SU.
In any case, Hayford feels for the programs that have not gotten on the court as much in a season where the best laid plans haven’t always worked out due to nobody’s fault.
“My heart goes out to all of them.”