College Sports

Anticipation high among Sacramento State basketball programs for student arena vote

Senior guard Mikh McKinney at practice in Sacramento, Calif. on Monday, Oct 27, 2014. The Hornets return all five starters from a team that went 14-16 overall, 10-10 in the Big Sky and qualified for the conference tournament for the first time since 2006.
Senior guard Mikh McKinney at practice in Sacramento, Calif. on Monday, Oct 27, 2014. The Hornets return all five starters from a team that went 14-16 overall, 10-10 in the Big Sky and qualified for the conference tournament for the first time since 2006. Aseng@sacbee.com

Sacramento State men’s basketball coach Brian Katz can’t vote in this week’s student referendum that, if passed, will finance construction of an event center on campus.

But that hasn’t stopped the Hornets’ seventh-year coach from dreaming a little.

He hopes students will vote Tuesday and Wednesday in favor of paying an additional $219 per semester to finance a $125 million, 5,000-seat multi-event arena next to the Student Union and across from the Well, the campus’ popular recreation center.

“I’m kind of like a kid waiting for Christmas to see what is going to happen,” Katz said. “You have excitement and anticipation. It’s almost like that special present you want, but you are a little afraid to get your hopes up for.”

In addition to athletic events, the facility would host graduation ceremonies, lectures, recreational activities and concerts for a commuter-dominated student body of more than 29,000, the seventh-largest enrollment among the 23 California State University schools.

The fee, which would increase 1.5 to 2 percent annually, would pay for design, construction and long-term maintenance.

If the referendum passes, is signed off by Sac State’s outgoing president, Alexander Gonzalez – a huge event center supporter – and is approved by the California State University board of trustees, the fee will be implemented in the fall of 2015. Construction would begin in 2016 and be completed two years later.

The Hornets men’s and women’s basketball teams play in the Nest, the intimate 1,000-seat gymnasium built in 1954 and one of the oldest and smallest in NCAA Division I basketball. Recruiting has been especially challenging for the Sac State men’s team because some players are turned off by a gym that often is smaller than their high school’s.

“You’re out of the game before you even start with some kids,” Katz said. “They have no interest just based on your facility.”

Since moving to Division I in 1991-92, the Sac State men haven’t had a winning season, and the women have had just four. Neither has won a Big Sky Conference championship; the Hornets joined the conference in 1996.

The men have steadily improved under Katz, going 14-15 and 14-16 the past two years. This year’s team, 3-1 entering Monday night’s home game against Utah Valley, could be the best in school history.

The women were 19-12 and 18-12 the past two seasons. Despite a 1-4 start under second-year coach Bunky Harkleroad, the Hornets play an entertaining, unconventional up-tempo offensive style. They were seventh nationally in scoring (83.1 points per game) in 2013-14.

Last season, both teams made the tiny confines of the Nest a tough place for opponents. The men were 11-3 and the women 13-2 at home.

“Basketball is definitely on the upswing here,” senior guard Mikh McKinney said. “That’s why I think the arena is a good idea. We’ll be able to fit a lot more people into the gym and build even more school spirit.”

Junior guard Cody Demps, who played at Pleasant Grove High School, said the arena is about much more than athletics.

“The main complaint I hear from people on campus is that Sac State feels more like a commuter school,” Demps said. “I think having an arena will help create a little more of the college atmosphere.”

The size of the gym also has limited the Hornets’ ability to attract popular mid-major and major teams.

“If you are going to ramp up your schedule and bring in some of these marquee teams, you need to come away with something,” said Sac State’s Bill Macriss, the acting athletic director who also has been the sports information director and an assistant athletic director in his 19 years at the school.

He said with half of the tickets promised to students, there is limited income from general admission sales.

“If we brought in Kentucky, we’d have 500 seats to sell,” Macriss said. “Because of the limiting seating, there’s not that revenue stream.”

With a 5,000-seat arena, Macriss said it would be much easier for Sac State to attract teams such as Fresno State, Nevada, San Diego State, Cal and Stanford.

Still, only 20 percent of arena events are expected to involve athletics.

“While the arena’s impact would be very positive for athletics, it would be positive in a lot of other ways, especially in terms of strengthening our ties with the community and the alumni,” Macriss said.

The referendum has been a hot topic on campus. A standing-room-only crowd of 200 students turned out for a debate last week at Folsom Hall. The State Hornet, the student newspaper, published an eight-page special section laying out the pros and cons of the proposal.

Opponents have said the fee would move Sac State from No. 10 to No. 6 for the highest mandatory student fees among CSU schools. The extra fee would mean a 6 percent increase for the average student, and most would be gone by the time the facility opened.

Other opponents point to a 2004 student vote that increased fees to build an event center that didn’t open. Because of the recession and soaring construction costs, only the Well was built from that $72 million project.

Supporters say an event center would attract acclaimed speakers and more popular entertainers, create more student jobs and draw alumni back to the school. Graduation ceremonies could be held on campus instead of at Sleep Train Arena.

While McKinney advocates for the new arena, he said the blue-collar Hornets have been successful at home in recent years partly because of the throwback gym.

“We’ve built our team chemistry and culture along the lines that if you are worried about the gym size, we probably don’t want you to play for us anyway,” McKinney said. “We want guys to play for the team, not for the crowd or the big arena.”

Call The Bee’s Bill Paterson, (916) 326-5506.

EVENT CENTER VOTE

▪ Who: Sacramento State students

▪ When: Tuesday and Wednesday

▪ What: A proposal to fund construction of an event center on campus that would host men’s and women’s basketball games, volleyball matches, lectures, graduation ceremonies, concerts and other events.

▪ Fee: $219 per semester

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