Normally, Sacramento State men’s basketball coach Brian Katz would be checking out the high school playoffs this week, trying to sell prospective recruits on his program.
But for the first time in his six-year tenure , Sac State is playing in the Big Sky Conference tournament.
The seventh-seeded Hornets (14-15, 10-10) play second-seeded North Dakota (15-15, 12-8) today at Weber State in Ogden, Utah.
“At this time, I’d be on the recruiting trail,” Katz said. “I’d watch some of the (tournament games) on the computer or TV, but really, as soon as we’d lose our last game, my focus was elsewhere because recruiting is the lifeblood of what you do.”
But just qualifying for the tournament for the first time in eight seasons – fifth time overall – may be better than any recruiting pitch Katz can make, especially if Sac State can pull off three wins and get an automatic NCAA Tournament berth.
Sac State went 11-3 at home and 3-12 on the road. The Hornets lost 82-71 at North Dakota on Jan. 23 and beat North Dakota 71-65 on Feb. 20 at The Nest. Sac State has a 3-3 all-time record against North Dakota, with the home team winning each meeting.
“This is probably as much parity as I’ve seen in this conference,” Katz said. “Weber State won it with six losses, so I think we have as good a chance as any other team in the tournament.”
Although the Hornets finished 14-15 overall for a second consecutive season, Katz said getting into the tournament with a Big Sky school-record 10 wins and beating Montana State 84-59 at home on the last day to qualify took the Hornets a step beyond.
“We keep going in a positive direction,” Katz said. “I think what’s kind of cool is that next year we have this core group back.”
The leader of that group, junior guard Mikh McKinney, was named to the All-District 6 second team by the National Association of Basketball Coaches on Wednesday. The unanimous All-Big Sky first-team selection is the first Hornet to be selected all-district in Sac State’s Division I era (since 1991).
In conference play, McKinney leads the Hornets with averages of 17.0 points, 4.3 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 1.3 steals and a plus-2.4 assist-to-turnover ratio.
New-look Hornets – Southern Utah will likely see an abridged version of Sac State’s up-tempo “The System” when the teams meet today in the opening round of the Big Sky women’s tournament in Grand Forks, N.D.
Sac State coach Bunky Harkleroad was forced to tweak his defense in the last four games to accommodate the team’s lack of depth from the growing number of injuries.
Rather than using a fullcourt press, trapping on defense and subbing three to five players every 45 seconds, the Hornets played a more traditional halfcourt defense and subbed less frequently in beating Weber State and Idaho State at home and losing to Montana and Montana State on the road.
The seventh-seeded Hornets (18-11, 10-10) face arguably their toughest conference matchup in No. 2 Southern Utah (21-8, 15-5). The Thunderbirds snapped the Hornets’ eight-game home winning streak to open the season with a 97-79 win Jan. 11, then beat the Hornets 93-74 Feb. 8 in Cedar City.
“They’re a tough matchup whether you play them fast or you play them slow,” Harkleroad said. “Of all the teams in the league, they make the most effort to intimidate you with their aggressiveness and physicality. They’re just a good basketball team.”
Call The Bee’s Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.