Brian Katz, instructing in practice, enters his fifth season as Sacramento State's coach with a team that is all his. He says the Big Sky Conference is wide open.

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    • Men: Today at Montana State, 6:05 p.m.; Saturday at Montana, 6:05 p.m.; Jan. 9 at Northern Arizona, 5:30 p.m.; Jan. 11 at Southern Utah, 6:05 p.m.

    • Women: Today vs. Montana State, 7 p.m.; Saturday vs. Montana, 2 p.m.; Jan. 9 vs. Northern Arizona, 7 p.m.; Jan. 11 vs. Southern Utah, 2 p.m.


    • Men: Today vs. Simpson, 7 p.m.; Jan. 9 at Cal State Northridge, 7 p.m.; Jan. 11 at Long Beach State, 4 p.m.

    • Women: Today vs. Simpson, 4:45 p.m.; Jan 9 vs. Cal State Northridge, 7 p.m.; Jan. 11 vs. Long Beach State, 2 p.m.

Sacramento State men’s basketball begins grueling trip tonight at Montana State

Published: Thursday, Jan. 2, 2014 - 12:00 am

Sacramento State men’s basketball coach Brian Katz is a glass half-full kind of guy.

His Hornets (4-5) open Big Sky Conference play with four road games, starting tonight against Montana State (5-6) in Bozeman, then Saturday against two-time defending conference champion Montana (5-4) in Missoula.

That trip is followed by games at Northern Arizona on Jan. 9 and at Southern Utah on Jan. 11, with a long bus ride from Flagstaff, Ariz., to St. George, Utah, between games.

The Hornets, who left for Montana on Wednesday, will spend only two of the next 11 days at home and don’t play their first home game of 2014 until Jan. 16 against Portland State.

But Katz sees a positive.

“I told the guys if they can survive this, we have 10 of the last 16 games at home,” Katz said. “It’s always better to be at home at the end of the year because of fatigue and because the games matter more.

“We’re getting four really tough games out of the way right now and maybe, like a boxer, we surprise someone and knock them out.”

Still, the Hornets haven’t had a lot of success in the expansive Big Sky, where the trips can be grueling and the weather sometimes miserable. Sac State, which was 1-9 last season in Big Sky road games, is the only California school in the 11-member cold-weather conference.

Sac State is 5-17 against Montanta State in Bozeman and has won just once (74-71 in 2011) in the last seven games there.

Missoula has been even more inhospitable. Sac State last won there in 2003.

The Hornets aren’t alone.

Montana, 34-2 in Big Sky play the last two seasons, has won 31 consecutive home games.

Katz has seen his teams pull off some surprises in challenging conditions.

Two years ago, after beating Northern Colorado in Greeley, Colo., on a Thursday night, the Hornets spent most of their time between games trying to get to Cheney, Wash., to play Eastern Washington two days later.

“We were supposed to fly out of Denver at 8 Saturday morning,” Katz said. “We didn’t leave until 1 a.m. the next day because of a snowstorm.

“We get to Spokane, take a bus to Cheney and we’re there at 4 a.m. for a 2 p.m. game. We let the players sleep until about 11, then had a meal. We had no practice, no walk-through and at the half we were up by 19 points (and won 75-71).”

Katz says the key for the Hornets is to win at home.

Sac State went 3-1 at home during nonconference play after beating UC Riverside 69-67 Sunday on Dylan Garrity’s two free throws with eight seconds remaining. The Hornets’ only home loss was to UC Irvine, a team picked to win the Big West Conference.

“If you are a good team, you win at home and split on the road,” Katz said.

The Hornets have improved their conference record every year of Katz’s six-year tenure, from 1-15 his first year to 8-12 last season. But losses at Montana (63-52) and at Montana State (71-55) in the final two regular-season games last season prevented the 14-15 Hornets from their first overall winning record since moving to Division I in 1991.

Hornet women are motivated – The Sac State women have made believers out of many after beating formidable competition to go 8-1 in nonconference play and match the program’s best start since 1976-77 in Division II.

The Hornets also have had Big Sky games circled on their calendars after they were picked to finish ninth in the preseason coaches poll and sixth in the media poll.

“It’s motivated us,” junior point guard Fantasia Hilliard said. “But we’re going to keep playing like we’re the underdogs who are supposed to finish ninth. We’re going to keep striving. We’re a good team, but we’re focused on being a great team.”

The Hornets, who finished fourth in the Big Sky and had their best finish of the D-I era at 19-12 last season, host Montana State (5-4) tonight and Montana (6-3) on Saturday.

Montana, which ended Sac State’s season last year with a 74-53 win in the conference tournament semifinals, was picked second (behind Eastern Washington) and Montana State fourth in both polls.

First-year coach Bunky Harkleroad says he’s been too busy learning about the Big Sky teams to give the Hornets’ predicted finish much thought. But he knows his players are well aware of it.

“There have been some references in practice,” he said. “There’s been some off-the-cuff remarks.”

Sac State is ranked No. 19 in the Women’s Mid-Major Top 25, the only Big Sky team in the poll.

Call The Bee’s Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.

Read more articles by Bill Paterson

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