While they would have preferred to take a giant leap forward, the UC Davis and Sacramento State men’s basketball programs have settled for incremental steps as their respective history-making seasons continue.
Both are playing in 32-team Division I postseason tournaments for the first time, steppingstones to what UC Davis coach Jim Les and Sac State coach Brian Katz hope eventually will lead to those ever-elusive NCAA Tournament berths.
For UC Davis, it’s the National Invitation Tournament.
The seventh-seeded Aggies (25-6), fresh off a loss to Hawaii in the Big West Conference tournament semifinals, will play at No. 2 Stanford (19-13) on Tuesday, a game that will be televised by ESPN2.
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Sac State (20-11) will play in the opening round of the CollegeInsider.com Postseason Tournament on Wednesday at Portland (17-15), a rematch of their nonconference meeting in December.
“A number of teams have used (the NIT) as a progression,” Les said. “Look at Irvine. Last year Irvine goes to the NIT, and this year it’s playing in the NCAA.
“It’s certainly the path we want to create as we continue to climb the mountain. We talked about a Big West (regular-season) championship, and we got that. Eventually, down the road we want to get to the NCAA Tournament.”
The Aggies didn’t take a small step in posting their first winning record of the D-I era this season. UCD’s 25 wins are an NCAA-high 16-win improvement over last season.
Sac State’s climb to only its third 20-win season in school history has been more grinding. The Hornets have steadily improved in each of Katz’s seven seasons.
“You can’t cut corners,” Katz said. “We’re in the CIT and not the NCAA, so we’re disappointed like every team. But that’s fine because we get to keep playing while trying to win our 21st game and our first (D-I) tournament game.”
He doesn’t expect a letdown among his players after Friday’s semifinal loss to eventual Big Sky Conference tournament champion and NCAA qualifier Eastern Washington.
“Their biggest motivation is that they get to keep spending time with each other, and the only way to keep doing it is to win,” Katz said. “They don’t want this to end.”
UCD stars Josh Ritchart and Corey Hawkins feel the same way. A semifinal loss to Hawaii in the Big West semifinals Friday was not the way they wanted to finish their seasons.
So the playing Stanford in the NIT is a nice bonus.
“It’s local, and it’s a good matchup for us, so we’re excited,” Ritchart said during a team viewing party on Sunday. “It’s nice to be able to get back on the court and shake off what happened in Anaheim and to have kind of a redemption game.”
Hawkins said it’s huge for UCD to still be this deep into March Madness for the first time.
“It’s not often you get a second chance,” Hawkins said. “As Darius (Graham) said earlier, we kind of cheated death a little bit. We just want to make the most of this opportunity.”
An injury-depleted UCD lost 83-56 last season to Stanford, and the Cardinal is 17-1 all-time against the Aggies.
“We know it’s a big challenge, but we’re excited for these guys,” Les said. “It’s a great way to measure our program against a Pac 12 school and see how far we’ve come.”
Sac State also looks to see how it stacks up against Portland from the more prestigious West Coast Conference.
The Pilots held off Sac State 80-75 in a nonconference game on Dec. 14 at the Nest, despite a 32-point performance by senior guard Mikh McKinney. It was Sac State’s only home loss in 14 games.
Like the Sac State men’s team, the women qualified for the postseason for the first time. The Hornets will learn Monday night whom they will play in the WNIT.
Call The Bee’s Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.