Sacramento State men’s basketball coach Brian Katz agrees that recruiting is an inexact science.
He only has to point to his two senior stars, Mikh McKinney and Dylan Garrity, to prove his point.
Katz admits he fell in love at first sight with Garrity’s talents, but then says he only signed McKinney after much arm twisting from a fellow coach and good friend.
When Katz saw Garrity play for Edison High School in Huntington Beach, he immediately knew he had found his future point guard. That was usual for Katz, an evaluator who is meticulous and calculating almost to a fault.
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“The first time I saw him, I fell off the rocker, so to speak,” Katz said. “I told my assistants after watching him for one quarter, ‘We’re going to offer.’ He was being double-teamed the whole game, didn’t make one turnover and made every right decision. He made those around him better.”
As it turned out, Katz’s instincts proved correct. Garrity is Sac State’s all-time assists leader and a four-time All-Big Sky Conference selection, including second-team this year.
But when McKinney was a freshman guard at Ohlone College in Fremont, Katz didn’t include him at the top of his recruiting list. Katz courted another player who eventually passed on the Hornets.
It was only after then-Ohlone coach John Peterson persistently lobbied for McKinney that Katz relented and gave him a scholarship.
“We brought him in as a backup,” Katz said. “I didn’t think he’d be able to hold up to the pounding at the D-I level because he was so thin and because of how he played. He tended to force things. We figured he’d fight for minutes.”
The wiry McKinney fought all the way to being named this season’s Big Sky Conference Player of the Year, earned two unanimous first-team all-conference selections and is arguably the best men’s basketball player in Sac State history.
“The guy we wanted didn’t turn out to be nearly as good as Mikh,” Katz said. “Not even close.”
McKinney smiles when the subject of his recruitment is broached. He’s heard the story before from Katz, and there are no hard feelings.
“I think it takes a great coach to admit that,” McKinney said. “I think a lot of coaches would say, ‘See, I told you you’d be good.’ Coach Katz keeps it real, and where a lot of other coaches looked the other way, he gave me the chance.”
While Garrity and McKinney offered differing games that meshed in a positive way, they also had one thing in common. Their only Division I scholarship offers came from Sac State.
They’re not alone. Most of the Hornets playing in Thursday afternoon’s Big Sky Conference tournament opener against Portland State in Missoula, Mont., were lightly recruited, several getting only a lone offer from Katz.
Yet this season’s Hornets rank as arguably the best in Sac State history, having posted the first winning season since moving to D-I in 1991. The 19-win Hornets have created a huge buzz in the community in coming within one game of a Big Sky co-championship and hosting the postseason tournament.
McKinney said being overlooked played a big part in the Hornets setting a number of D-I firsts this season.
“Coach Katz went out and got a bunch of players like him,” McKinney said. “He got a bunch of underdogs that had something to prove, wanted to build something and to be part of a basketball revolution at this school.”
It’s a long way from where Katz took over seven seasons ago when, because of the program’s lousy history and outdated, tiny gym, he couldn’t get a high school player to commit to Sac State for the first few seasons.
Garrity not only turned into a strong player for Katz, he’s been a pied piper as a recruiter, too.
“All of sudden, good kids wanted to come here because Dylan was so good at passing the ball,” Katz said. “But we also wanted kids who wanted to be here, so we embraced the underdog thing.”
McKinney and fellow seniors Alex Tiffin (UC Davis transfer) and Zach Mills (Irvine Valley Community College) are the only current players who didn’t start their careers at Sac State.
Junior guard and Pleasant Grove High School graduate Cody Demps is a star in the making, while junior guard Dreon Bartlett is a solid contributor off the bench. Center Eric Stuteville and forward Nick Hornsby start as sophomores.
Collectively they got only a handful of D-I scholarship offers from schools other than Sac State.
Things are starting to change. Katz had his best recruiting class yet in bringing in freshmen Justin Strings, James Herrick, Jiday Ugbaja, Mason Stuteville and Marcus Graves this season. They, along with sophomore Trevis Jackson, are part of a scout team that pushes the veteran players in practice.
“We have five talented freshmen sitting on the bench taking notes and learning,” McKinney said. “That’s why this program has nowhere to go but up.”
That’s as long as Katz continues to find under-the-radar players who can produce a winning chemistry, as have McKinney and Garrity.
Despite the accolades and the accomplishments, McKinney and Garrity are still humbled by the thought of where they might be if Katz hadn’t taken an interest.
“It was always my dream to be a D-I basketball player,” Garrity said “All it takes is that one look, that one coach, that one practice or game where he’s watching, and it can drastically change your life.
“It’s weird to think how different our lives would be if Coach Katz hadn’t come watch us play.”
Call The Bee’s Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.