Last year, Sacramento State came within the final regular-season game of winning a piece of its first Big Sky Conference men’s basketball title.
But the Hornets lost to Northern Arizona 70-68 and finished tied with the Lumberjacks for third place. Still, it was the second-best finish in the Hornets’ 19 years in the conference.
Though the goal of winning the regular-season title is unchanged, when Sac State (7-4) opens Big Sky play Saturday at Portland State (4-7), Brian Katz could take a noticeably different approach than in his previous seven years as the Hornets’ coach.
For one, the Hornets no longer have to worry about qualifying for the Big Sky tournament. For the first time, all 12 men’s teams qualify, no matter if they finish first or last. The top four will have byes in the first round. Last year, the Hornets were No. 3 among the eight teams that qualified. The season before when seven teams qualified, Sac State landed the last spot, the first time the Hornets made the tournament since 2006.
There also no longer are concerns about home-court advantage in the tournament. The men’s and women’s tournament will be played at a neutral site, the Reno Events Center. With all 24 conference teams qualifying, Big Sky officials believe there will be a buzz for the 53-year-old conference.
“It changes the way you coach your team because no matter what happens during the year, good or bad, you have to have one eye on the conference tournament,” Katz said.
It could mean resting a banged-up player who might have played in the past if a team was on the tournament bubble. Katz said it also could give reserve players more time during the regular season to improve depth for the late-season grind.
“The goal is still to win every game, but the reality is that there is a lot of parity in our conference,” Katz said. “You have 18 fistfights, and it’s really hard to win on the road in our league.
“Now we have the luxury of some bigger-picture type thinking. Before, all we could think about was trying to get into the tournament. Now it’s about what it’s going to take to win those last three or four games (in the tournament).”
While winning a regular-season title is important, Katz said the bigger goal is making the NCAA Tournament, something the Hornets haven’t done in the Division I era.
“Every coach, every program is striving to get to the NCAA Tournament,” he said.
Two years ago, Cal Poly was seventh of the nine teams in the Big West Conference but won the conference tournament and made the NCAA playoffs.
“They were 14-20 at the end of the year, and they threw a parade down there (in San Luis Obispo) for them,” Katz said. “These days, if you get on a hot streak, stay healthy and have a bit of luck, you can still right the ship and still have that defining moment.”
Big Sky honors Johnson – Sac State sophomore Maranne Johnson was named Big Sky Women’s Player of the Week for the second time this season.
She had 15 points, a career-high eight assists, five rebounds and five steals in the Hornets’ 126-78 rout of UC Irvine on Dec. 22. The 126 points set school and Big Sky records for most points in a game.