Chris Victor has led Seattle U basketball to a historic season despite early adversity. Now a long-awaited March Madness bid is in sight.
Nestled in the heart of downtown Seattle, the Seattle University Redhawks are back on college basketball’s national radar.
On Friday, Seattle U will embark on its WAC Tournament journey in hopes of returning to the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 1969.
SU’s men’s basketball program history features countless twists and turns, and this season has been no different. As such, further context is necessary to understand the gravity of Seattle U’s WAC semifinal matchup against Abilene Christian (11:30 p.m. ET; ESPN+).
Seattle U basketball was established in 1946 and enjoyed immediate success. Nicknamed the Chieftains at the time, SU notched 11 NCAA Tournament appearances in a 17-year span. This stretch was highlighted by a trip to the 1958 national championship behind eventual NBA Hall of Famer and Lakers legend Elgin Baylor.
Then, in 1980, Seattle U deemphasized its athletics focus, citing financial and philosophical changes. It left NCAA Division-I for the NAIA, a jarring decision that downgraded SU three competition levels. Five years after the move, the NCAA Tournament expanded to 64 teams, developing into the “March Madness” spectacle that now generates nine figures annually.
After reapplying for Division-I status in 2007 and finding a home in the Western Athletic Conference five years later, SU athletics has established its footing again while making new supporters and reconciling with previous ones.
But even this 23-win campaign — the program’s best since returning to D-1 — has come with obstacles.
Responding the right way
Just days before starting his fifth season at SU, head coach Jim Hayford was placed on administrative leave after repeating a racial slur during a preseason scrimmage. Associate head coach Chris Victor was promptly named interim head coach.
But what could have been a lost season in Capitol Hill has instead been a resilient, unforgettable effort.
“It’s been a unique season for us, obviously,” Seattle U head coach Chris Victor told Heat Check CBB.
“But what this team has been great at is they’ve really made it about winning this whole year. This team has come together better than any team I’ve coached.”
Victor and SU didn’t flinch after the abrupt coaching change. The Redhawks raced out to a 17-4 record through the end of January, capped by a 19-point comeback win on Jan. 29 over Sam Houston. It marked the program’s best 21-game start since 1964.
Picked sixth in the WAC preseason poll, SU has been the conference’s dark horse throughout the year. Stephen F. Austin, Abilene Christian and Sam Houston joined an already top-heavy league that features Grand Canyon and New Mexico State. With an interim head coach and youthful roster, SU’s pathway towards title contention seemed unlikely.
Now, Victor, who is just seven years removed from his position at JUCO Citrus College, has a full-time D-1 head job and Coach of the Year honor to his name.
“Being a head coach for five seasons has definitely allowed me to be prepared to be a head coach again,” Victor said. “But coming from an assistant to a head coach is a monumental jump.”
While Victor has certainly proven his worth, he didn’t focus this season’s attention on his employment status.
“From the first day I was named interim head coach, our focus has been on this group of guys. Our focus has been giving them the experience that they deserve at Seattle U.”
The “Big Three”
SU, which is the 13th-youngest team in the country according to KenPom.com, has matured rapidly. The Redhawks’ “Big Three” has led the way.
Darrion Trammell is SU’s leader on both ends of the floor. An energetic, 5-10 guard who transferred from City College of San Francisco, Trammell has a smooth stroke and isn’t afraid to attack the lane. While his 16.6 points-per-game average pops off the page, Trammell might be an even better defender, using his quickness and instincts to log 2.6 steals a night and pester opposing guards.
Cameron Tyson is Trammell’s backcourt mate. He is a lethal perimeter shooter, having pocketed 242 career 3-pointers at a 40.2-percent clip. A local product, Tyson started his career at Idaho before transferring to Houston last season as a role player during the Cougars’ Final Four run. Tyson opted to return home and team up with his brother D’Marques, who serves as one of SU’s assistant coaches.
Rounding out the trio is Riley Grigsby, Seattle U’s third double-figure scorer who stands at 6-6, 220. Grigsby, a 1,000-point scorer, plays with pace and can hit the timely shot when defenses lock in on Trammell and Tyson. Like Tyson, Grigsby also shares family ties within the SU program. He is the son of Cal basketball great Al Grigsby, who was named Seattle U’s Assistant to the Head Coach in September.
From there, the Redhawks rotation is largely comprised of underclassmen who are learning how to compete — and win — at the Division-I level.
“The ability of our team to come together this season has allowed the confidence to build in these young guys maybe quicker than it would in other programs,” Victor said. “They’re so tight, they believe in each other, and they’re so close.”
While Seattle U boasts a primary scoring trio, the calling card all season has been its stingy defense.
The Redhawks push the pace at the nation’s 34th-quickest tempo but Victor’s squad knows how to lock down opponents. SU is 60th in adjusted defensive efficiency and also ranks in the top 75 in opponent effective field-goal percentage, opponent turnover rate and defensive rebounding percentage.
The firm defensive footprint and capable scoring options have Seattle U weathering the storm of a challenging WAC slate.
“From the beginning of the very first day of the season we talked about how our goal was going to be to win a WAC championship and go to the NCAA Tournament,” Victor said. “But the big picture for us was that the only way we would do that is if we can improve every day in practice and get better every game.”
Bringing a new energy
Regardless of Seattle U’s performance at the Orleans Arena in Las Vegas this weekend, there is a new energy within a once-dormant basketball program.
The 999-capacity Redhawk Center was sold out and buzzing for its showdown with New Mexico State last month. Then, last week, Seattle U stamped its first WAC regular-season title in front of another capacity crowd.
“This is a storied university with a rich basketball past,” Victor said. “When we started getting that momentum this year, it was fun to connect this season and the success back to some of our alumni and fans from our old Seattle U days.”
Most SU alums and fans could have never envisioned the Redhawks would see the high stakes of March again.
A new era is here.
Header image courtesy of Seattle U Athletics.