One of the keys to the Sacramento State men’s basketball team’s continued improvement under eighth-year coach Brian Katz is his ability to find hidden gems.
One is sophomore guard Marcus Graves, whose only Division I college scholarship offer came from Katz. He now leads the Hornets in scoring and steals and is second in assists.
Katz has another budding star in another sophomore, forward Justin Strings, the team’s sixth man. The 6-foot-7, 235-pound Strings was named Big Sky Conference Player of the Week on Tuesday after averaging 19.5 points and 3.5 rebounds and shooting 59.1 percent (13 of 22) in Monday’s 73-70 win over Incarnate Word and a 66-61 loss at UC Davis on Dec. 2. He also played 58 minutes without a turnover.
Strings keyed late runs in both games, scoring eight points in the final six minutes against Incarnate Word and six points late in the Hornets’ near comeback from a 13-point second-half deficit at UC Davis. He had a career-high 23 points against Incarnate Word, and he and Graves combined to score the Hornets’ last 19 points. Strings scored 16 points against the Aggies.
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Heading into Sac State’s nonconference game Saturday at Portland (4-6), Strings is third in scoring (13.8) and second in rebounding (4.6) and leads the Hornets in field-goal shooting (62.7 percent) and three-point shooting (48.3 percent).
All from a guy with a “not-so-attractive” high-arcing shot, Katz said.
“When we were recruiting him, the first thing I noticed is that he had a funny shot,” Katz said. “It’s very unorthodox. The rotation is straight over the top; there’s no variation. But the rotation is clean. You’ve just got to get over the way it looks.”
Strings is the team’s most versatile player, one reason Katz likes to use him off the bench. He can play on the wing or use his sturdy legs and strong upper body to pound down low.
Like Graves, Strings was lightly recruited out of Mira Costa High School in Manhattan Beach, though he was the school’s first Division I boys basketball signee in 12 years.
“We’re lucky to have him,” Katz said. “When we signed him, he was probably 6-5, 195 pounds, and a little doughy. But because he had that baby fat, I thought he wasn’t done growing.
“It was another one where you try to project. You’re not always right, but with Justin I think we’re right. And I’m not even sure he’s done growing.”
Sac State is 6-2, the team’s best record after eight games in the Division I era (since 1991) and best in 27 years, as it prepares to play five of the next six games on the road, including three to open Big Sky Conference play.
Next-level Aggies – Former UC Davis guard Avery Johnson, who played on last season’s Big West Conference regular-season championship team, recently signed with the Kilsyth Cobras of Melbourne, Australia. The Cobras compete in the South East Australian Basketball League, the country’s premier winter league.
Johnson was a defensive mainstay for the Aggies while averaging 6.2 points. He joins guard Corey Hawkins (NBA Development League’s Sioux Falls Skyforce) and forward Josh Ritchart (Bambitious Nara, Japan) from last year’s team now playing professionally.
Kissell receives honor – Senior outside hitter Lauren Kissell became the sixth Sac State player in the volleyball program’s Division I era to be named all-Pacific North Region by the American Volleyball Coaches Association. The honorable-mention selection played a key role for the Hornets, who were 26-7 this season, 18 wins better than the previous year and the biggest improvement in the country. An all-Big Sky Conference first-team selection, Kissell’s .305 hitting average was the best season mark by a true outside hitter in school history.