It’s a foreign position for the Sacramento State men’s basketball team.
Longtime also-rans in the Big Sky Conference, the Hornets are among the favorites for the championship this season. Lofty expectations for a program that has not had a winning season since moving to Division I in 1991, and for a team that tied for seventh place in the Big Sky with a 10-10 record last season.
Sac State has been picked to finish anywhere from first to fourth in Big Sky preseason polls, including first by Blue Ribbon, second by ESPN and third by the Sporting News. The Hornets have been selected fourth by Big Sky coaches and media.
Without having played a regular-season game, this Sac State men’s basketball team is being called by some as the school’s best ever.
“I just think it shows you what our potential could be,” said Brian Katz, whose team team has improved its Big Sky record in his first six seasons as Sac State’s coach. “But if we’re supposed to be the best team, then we’ve got to prove it.”
The Hornets set Division I-era school records last season for Big Sky victories (10), total home wins (11) and home winning streak (seven), and qualified for the Big Sky tournament for the first time since 2006. But with a 79-76 loss to North Dakota in the opening round, the Hornets finished 14-16 – their 22nd losing season in 23 years (Sac State was 15-15 in 2005-06 under coach Jerome Jenkins) of Division I ball.
Sac State returns all five starters and eight of its top nine players from last season, including perhaps the best guard duo in the Big Sky in seniors Mikh McKinney and Dylan Garrity.
McKinney became the first player in Sac State history to be named unanimously to the Big Sky’s first team last season. He led the Hornets in points (16.6 average), assists (4.6), steals (1.2) and moxie.
Garrity made Big Sky honorable mention for the third consecutive year after finishing second on the team in points (13.2) and assists (3.6).
But the four-year starting point guard is most remembered for his 75-footer at the overtime buzzer in the Hornets’ 78-75 home win over Big Sky champion Weber State last February that went viral nationally.
“I have no idea how many hits it has received – it’s probably a lot,” Garrity said of the shot’s online video. “But I think that shot showed why people are excited to come watch us play. We play so hard, we play for each other, and we don’t give up.”
People will come to see the team this season largely because most of the key pieces are back from last year. McKinney, Garrity and junior guard and defensive stopper Cody Demps (Pleasant Grove High School) started all 30 games last year. Senior center Alex Tiffin started 29 games and senior forward Zach Mills 24.
But the starting lineup likely will be reshuffled as 6-foot-11 Eric Stuteville (Casa Roble) and 6-7 forward Nick Hornsby continue to show improvement in preseason practices. They averaged a combined 30 minutes, 9.4 points and 6.6 rebounds coming off the bench last season as true freshmen. Junior guard Dreon Bartlett, who averaged 10 minutes in 30 appearances last season, also returns.
Five freshmen are on the roster this season – guards Marcus Graves and Jiday Ugbaja, 6-6 forward Justin Strings, 6-9 center James Herrick and 6-11 forward Mason Stuteville (Casa Roble), Eric’s younger brother – although they aren’t expected play a big role.
“Anything we get from them will be a bonus,” Katz said.
Sac State went 2-8 on the road and 8-2 at home in the Big Sky last season. But none of last year’s 11 Big Sky teams – Idaho joins the conference this season – had a winning road record.
McKinney believes the Hornets can take advantage of their road experience.
“I think our past struggles will be a big help in making the jump to getting some road wins,” McKinney said. “We know how to play on the road. We know it’s going to take a little bit more.”
Katz continues to try to turn the cozy yet much maligned Hornets Nest – with a listed capacity of 1,012 – into a homecourt advantage. (Sac State students will vote Dec. 2-3 if they want to raise their fees to finance the building of a 5,000-seat arena on campus.)
“I’ve asked some of my fellow Big Sky coaches where’s one of the hardest places on the road to play, and they say our place,” Katz said. “They say they feel like the fans are right on top of them.
“If we can fill the place every night, then it really becomes hard for our opponents. But that’s on us. We’ve got to give the people a reason to come out.”
Big Sky Coaches Poll
(First-place votes in parentheses)
1. Weber State (8)
2. Eastern Washington (1)
3. Northern Arizona (2)
4. Sacramento State (1)
5. Portland State
6. Northern Colorado
9. North Dakota
10. Idaho State
11. Montana State
12. Southern Utah
Call The Bee’s Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.
HORNETS AT A GLANCE
▪ Coach: Brian Katz, seventh season, 56-118
▪ 2013-14: 14-16, 10-10 and tied for seventh in Big Sky Conference
▪ Key loss: Reserve center Jordan Salley. “Jordan was something different for us, a guy with extreme athleticism and pop off the bench,” Katz said.
▪ Key returnees: Guards Mikh McKinney, Dylan Garrity and Cody Demps; posts Eric Stuteville and Alex Tiffin; forwards Zach Mills and Nick Hornsby.
▪ Strengths: Experience, depth and size; continuity in coaching as Katz and assistants Brandon Laird, Ajay Riding and Chris Walker return.
▪ Challenges: Tough games Nov. 14 at No. 13 Gonzaga and Dec. 6 at UC Irvine; playing on the road in the expansive Big Sky.
▪ Big Sky coaches poll (first-place votes in parentheses): 1. Weber State (8), 2. Eastern Washington (1), 3. Northern Arizona (2), 4. Sacramento State (1), 5. Portland State, 6. Northern Colorado, 7. Idaho, 8. Montana, 9. North Dakota, 10. Idaho State, 11. Montana State, 12. Southern Utah.
at UC Riverside
at Abilene Christian
at UC Irvine
Cal State Fullerton
at Utah Valley
at North Dakota*
at Northern Colorado*
at Idaho State*
at Weber State*
at Eastern Washington*
at Portland State*
at Southern Utah*
at Northern Arizona*
* Big Sky Conference games