College Sports

Sacramento State men hope home remains sweet in Big Sky play

The second season for the Sacramento State men’s basketball team begins Thursday night, and the Hornets should have an edge.

Sac State (3-8) will play Northern Colorado (4-7) in a Big Sky Conference opener at the Nest, its cozy and much-maligned gym that seats a little more than 1,000 spectators.

For teams in the challenging nine-state conference, the home court has proven to be a crucial advantage for most.

This season, Sac State is 3-0 at home (and 47-14 dating to the beginning of the 2012-13 season) while going 0-5 on the road and 0-2 in neutral-site games. The Hornets also are 5-4 in home conference openers, including wins in the past two, and 0-11 in road openers since joining the Big Sky 21 years ago.

“The Nest has been pretty good for us,” Sac State coach Brian Katz said. “No guarantees, but we feel good about starting at home.”

Northern Colorado’s record almost mirrors Sac State’s. The Bears are 0-6 on the road, 1-1 in neutral site games and 3-0 at home.

North Dakota, which plays at Sac State on Saturday, is one of only three conference teams with a .500 record or better. The Fighting Hawks (5-5) are 3-1 at home, 1-1 on neutral courts and 1-3 on the road.

The Big Sky in my previous three seasons has been an adventure. I’m sure it’s going to be like that this year, too.

Bunky Harkleroad, Sac State women’s basketball coach

They are not alone. The 12-team conference has struggled on the road. Big Sky teams are 9-60 away from home and none has a winning road record. Only Northern Arizona has a losing home record (0-3).

Katz said those road records are misleading because Big Sky teams must play so many financially lucrative guarantee games against high-major teams. Sac State played Colorado, Nebraska and Washington State this season. Idaho State (2-10) played five high-major teams, including No. 14 Wisconsin, and lost each time.

“That’s the plight of the mid-major now,” Katz said. “It’s all the guarantee games – it’s a ton – then couple that with it being hard these days to get home games.”

While Portland State (7-4), Eastern Washington (8-5), North Dakota, Idaho (5-6) and defending Big Sky champion Weber State (5-6) produced the best nonconference records, Katz still thinks the Hornets have a shot at a top-half finish.

“Our league is very unique,” Katz said. “It’s very balanced and there are a lot of ‘like’ teams. So there isn’t a ton of separation between those at the top and those at the bottom.”

Katz said the keys to Big Sky success are enduring: win at home and try to steal a handful of upsets on the road.

“Our conference is truly a marathon,” Katz said. “With the travel involved, the crowds involved.”

The Hornets should benefit from a roster led by upperclassmen used to the Big Sky travel grind. Seniors Eric Stuteville and Nick Hornsby and juniors Marcus Graves and Justin Strings, all starters, have played in a combined 167 conference games.

The Hornets started the nonconference schedule poorly and finished better as exemplified by their bookend games against Pacific-12 Conferece schools.

Colorado walloped the Hornets 90-53 in the season opener Nov. 11. But Sac State closed nonconference play with a 74-66 loss at Washington State on Dec. 21. The Hornets led 60-58 with 3:28 to play before the Cougars rallied.

The Nest has been pretty good for us. No guarantees, but we feel good about starting at home.

Brian Katz, Sac State men’s basketball coach

“You could say Colorado is better than Washington State, and they are,” Katz said. “But we wouldn’t have played Washington State like that six weeks ago. Obviously we’re not thrilled about being 3-8, but as far as where we are right now as a team, I feel pretty good about us.”

Sac State women – Looking to extend their Big Sky road success, the Hornets (4-7) open conference play at Northern Colorado (8-3) in Greeley, Colo., on Thursday, then face North Dakota (5-6) on Saturday in Grand Forks, N.D. Sac State has won a program-best five conference road games each of the last two seasons.

“That’s arguably the roughest trip of the year right off the bat, but we’re excited for conference play,” coach Bunky Harkleroad said. “The Big Sky in my previous three seasons has been an adventure. I’m sure it’s going to be like that this year, too.”

Northern Colorado finished with the best nonconference record among the Big Sky’s women’s teams. North Dakota was picked to finish second in the Big Sky coaches’ preseason poll.

Aggie honored – UC Davis sophomore forward Morgan Bertsch received her first Big West Conference Player of the Week honor after scoring a career-high 27 points in a 78-58 win against USF on Dec. 21. Her point total tied for seventh on the UCD single-game list.

Bill Paterson: 916-326-5506, @SacBee_BillP