When the University of Denver and Seattle University basketball teams meet Friday at 1:00 MT at the Elgin Baylor Classic in Seattle, each program will be fighting for relevance, trying to break a cycle of low past expectations, turn around campus ambivalence and snap the reins of ill-fitting conferences.
But, that only happens with wins and significant fan bases. All made more difficult in large metropolitan areas with many other entertainment options and fan interests – and few natural league rivals.
While Seattle University (3-2) has an illustrious basketball history, their recent history mirrors University of Denver basketball (1-2). The Redhawk program experienced success during the 1950s and 1960s, reaching the NCAA Division 1 Tournament 11 times. Like Denver, they exited Division 1 play, along with their membership in the West Coast Conference in 1980 following a 10 year run in the WCC. They reentered D1 play 10 years ago but there was no room at the WCC table so they bounced around as an independent or as a member of regional western conferences before joining the WAC in 2012. And, like the University of Denver they are fighting for relevance again in an ill-fitting conference.
The WAC is a cats and dogs conference, spread out across the country, where members’ sole interest is conference affiliation and an auto-bid for their sports menu to the NCAA playoffs. The recent additions of California Baptist and Dixie University do little to appeal to Seattle, a private Jesuit University – just like the potential addition of Augustana to the Summit League has no appeal to DU fans. And, there is no doubt that they are fighting to get out of the WAC – and a logical return to the West Coast Conference where similar colleges reside. But, according to a number of sources, Gonzaga wants the state of Washington to themselves and, to this point, has blocked Seattle’s advances. Add a floundering hoops program, Seattle has little to offer the West Coast Conference in one of the few revenue producing sport in a conference that offers baseball; both men’s and women’s basketball, cross country, golf, soccer, and tennis; and beach volleyball, softball, women’s volleyball and women’s rowing.
While Denver plays on an over-sized arena on-campus, Seattle plays at KeyArena several miles from campus. Their on-campus facility, Redhawk Center, seats only 1,000 people and is being used this season by the Redhawks while KeyArena is being rebuilt.
Just like the University of Denver, Seattle hired a new coach to turn around their fortunes. On March 29, 2017, Jim Hayford was hired as the new men’s basketball head coach, coming from rival Eastern Washington. University. In his first year as head coach, Hayford compiled a 20–14 record, the Redhawks’ first 20-win season since 2008 and first 20-win season in Division I play since the 1960s. But, the #4 Redhawks fell in the WAC quarterfinals to Utah Valley.
The Pioneers finished last season 16-16 and fell in the semifinals to the University of South Dakota.
Like Denver, Seattle is picked to finish third in their conference this season by conference coaches. But for both programs, their sights are set higher – win games, build a fan base, generate revenue and go to the NCAA tournament. Until that happens, they will continue to play in the shadows of ill-fitting conferences.
While 1,300 miles separate the two schools, they are on a course that mirrors each other. A win by either school Friday might just signal which program is ready to break the cycle.