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Seattle surprise: Redhawks overcome adversity to lead WAC

SU’s sparkling backcourt has helped them overcome early season adversity to rise to the top of the league.

NCAA Basketball: Seattle at Washington Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

It’s easy to overlook Seattle in the ever-changing landscape that has been the WAC over the past year and a half. As the league geographically consolidates in the Southwest around Texas schools, the Redhawks increasingly feel like an outpost in a conference with fewer outposts.

Seattle’s start, however, can’t be overlooked.

The Redhawks (15-4, 6-0) are the final unbeaten team in the league, jumping out to their best six-game start — by a mile — since joining the WAC in 2012. The winning uptick has also come in a season that began with adversity, making SU’s increasingly legitimate case for title contention all the more intriguing.

If you’re on this page, you likely know that the Redhawks began the year as a national story. Jim Hayford, about to start his fifth year leading the program, resigned in November after reportedly repeating a racial slur during practice. Longtime Hayford assistant Chris Victor stepped into the interim role, and has led SU through that adversity to sit atop a highly competitive WAC.

Wins at Abilene Christian and Tarleton State last week pushed the Redhawks league road victory count to four, already topping the best they had done in that category in any full conference season. Previously, they’d managed a high water mark of three WAC road wins in 2015-16 and 2019-20. Those road wins, as well as a home victory over Utah Valley, stamped legitimacy on a quality non-conference run (9-4) that had come against one of the country’s weakest schedules.

Now, the Redhawks look capable of sticking in the race.

The team picked to finished sixth by league coach’s in the preseason poll has ridden one of the country’s best backcourts into contention. Sophomore guard Darrion Trammell, the coach’s preseason Player of the Year, is having another banner season, leading the WAC in assists (5.8 apg) and steals (2.9 spg) per game, while averaging 16.2 points per game. That is down from his WAC-leading figure from a year ago (20.5 ppg), but there’s good reason for that.

Hayford said in an interview last year that when Trammell signed out of City College of San Francisco, the plan had been to pair him with another high-scoring guard in Terrell Brown, who, at the time, was coming off his own WAC scoring championship season (20.8 ppg in 2019-20). Instead, Brown transferred to Arizona and Trammell was handed the keys to the offense immediately. This year, however, he’s gotten that point-slinging backcourt running mate.

Houston transfer Cameron Tyson has simply been one of the best three-point shooters in the country. The redshirt sophomore guard has flourished in the Redhawks’ offense (16.5 ppg, 44.2 3P%), and is one of just six players in the country attempting nine or more three pointers per game, while still hitting over 40 percent of them. Of those high volume, high efficiency shooters, he has the highest three-point percentage.

That earned this week’s league player of the week nod, and the synergy with Trammell has been there all season. Trammell has been an effective playmaker while still scoring himself to great effect when needed. He enters the Redhawks next game as one of only nine players in the country averaging more than 16 points per game, while nonetheless carrying an assist rate of over 33 percent.

SU has also had its ounce of magic moments, like in an overtime win against California Baptist, which saw Trammell dish an improbable assist from his back to senior stalwart Riley Grigsby:

Will that sparkling backcourt be enough to ultimately challenge in a WAC that has seen New Mexico State and Grand Canyon set predictably high standards, Sam Houston State run out to its own impressive league start (7-1) with wins over the latter two and Stephen F. Austin and others look dangerous? The team will start to find out with a big pair of games in the Pacific Northwest this week, as they host SFA and SHSU.

The team’s defense has also been a layer to the fast start. Under Victor, who the Seattle Times mentioned as handling the Redhawks’ defense when he was an assistant, SU has posted its best defensive efficiency ranking (109th per KenPom) since rejoining Division I in 2009.

In December, Victor talked to the Times about whether he sees this as an audition for the head position on a permanent basis.

“I don’t,” he said. “I feel like my job is to make sure the guys in the program this year have a great experience, and that’s what we’re doing as a staff. We’re making sure that these guys are having an experience that, when they look back on it, is a positive one. We’re trying to win as many games as possible, win a WAC championship and go to the NCAA tournament.”

Thus far, the Redhawks have done nothing in league play but put those options firmly on the table.