Sacramento State’s Cody Demps and Nick Hornsby know they have big high-tops to fill and doubters to persuade.
The Hornets men’s basketball team captains for the 2015-16 season assume the leadership roles vacated by Mikh McKinney and Dylan Garrity, two of the most successful players to wear the green and gold.
McKinney was the Big Sky Conference Player of the Year last season and arguably the best player in school history. Garrity was a four-year starter and four-year all-conference player.
Together they averaged 33 points last season and were lynchpins to one of Sac State’s best teams in school history. The Hornets finished 21-12 overall and 13-5 in the Big Sky while making their first postseason appearance of the Division I era dating to 1991. Sac State earned its first postseason win in 53 years.
Demps, a 6-foot-4 guard from Pleasant Grove High School, is only one of two seniors on the Hornets’ roster and, as a three-year starter, the most experienced of Sac State’s 10 returning players. Last season, he started all 33 games and averaged 9.8 points, 5.1 rebounds and 3.3 assists.
Hornsby, a 6-7 junior forward, is entering his second season as a starter. He averaged 6.8 points and 5.2 rebounds last season.
The Big Sky coaches think the loss of McKinney and Garrity will be too much for Sac State to overcome. They picked the Hornets to finish 10th in their preseason poll.
“I know there are doubters, and because we lost Mikh and Dylan, people think we aren’t going to be as good,” Hornsby said. “But I think we’re going to surprise people. We’re going to be just as good, maybe even better.”
While Demps was surprised by the coaches’ poll, he understands their logic.
“It’s definitely going to be tough because they were such great players,” Demps said of McKinney and Garrity. “They’d help to make up for a lot of mistakes we’d have on offense.”
So Hornsby is trying to fill McKinney’s role as the emotional leader with fire and bite, and Demps is trying to provide the understated leadership that Garrity personified.
“They’re opposites,” Sac State coach Brian Katz said. “Nick Hornsby is similar emotionally to Mikh. They’re both fiery guys. Cody is more cerebral, a leader by example and a good communicator.”
Hornsby said having the captain’s role is an honor but added he doesn’t have to do much to light a fire under his teammates. Most were part of last season’s team that created a big buzz around the campus and within the community. It was the first time Sac State finished above .500 in the D-I era, and its 21 wins tied for second most in program history dating to 1948.
“Cody and I know we have the support of our teammates,” Hornsby said. “They believe in us; they trust us to make good decisions.”
Sac State will put a different type of team on the court this season, one that will rely more on physicality and less on finesse. Katz looks to take advantage of a roster with an abundance of height and length.
Katz thinks 6-11, 240-pound junior center Eric Stuteville is ready to be an impact player after averaging 7.1 points and 3.6 rebounds last season. Eric’s brother Mason, a sophomore, has grown 2 inches to match his brother at 6-11 and is an outside scoring threat. Sophomore James Herrick is 6-10 and a sturdy 255 pounds, and Hornsby and sophomore forward Justin Strings are 6-7 with wing spans that compare to taller players.
“We’re much bigger, stronger and more powerful,” Katz said. “We’ll be better defensively, we’ll be better on the boards and we’ll be better at blocking shots.”
Senior Dreon Bartlett, sophomore Marcus Graves and true freshman Jeff Wu will complement Demps in the backcourt. Bartlett is the outside scoring threat, Graves the playmaker and Wu the X-factor. Wu is the first player of Tawainese descent to sign an NCAA D-I scholarship – and a diamond in the rough, Katz said.
“He can shoot it,” Katz said. “He’s smart and has a really good feel for the game. He’ll definitely be in the rotation.”
Weber State (first by the coaches) and Montana (first by the media) were picked to finish one-two in both the Big Sky coaches and media preseason polls, which is no surprise. The two schools have combined to win seven regular-season and six tournament titles during the past decade.
Eastern Washington, which like Sac State had its best season in school history and won last season’s tournament title, was picked third in both polls. Northern Arizona, which denied Sac State a Big Sky title in the last game of the regular season last season, was picked fourth in both polls, though tied with Sac State in the media poll.
“We want to prove that the media knows more than coaches,” Katz said, smiling. “But Weber and Montana are the great models for our league and can be penciled in one or two every year because they are consistently good. We’re not there yet, and we understand that. But we hope to be there someday.”
Five things to know about the Hornets
- For only the fourth time in their Division I history (1991-present), the Hornets will play more nonconference home games than road games, including a stretch where they play five of six games at home. The road game is at UC Davis, one of two Causeway Cup games this season. “That’s six games where we don’t have to get on a plane,” coach Brian Katz said. “For a mid-major school, that’s pretty hard to get.”
- Sac State recently received a $750,000 donation toward the construction of a new student events center that would include a basketball arena. But the Hornets have made their cozy 1,000-seat home a tough place to play in recent seasons. Last season, the Hornets finished 13-2 at The Nest and sold out their last six home contests. “It’s a great atmosphere to play in,” senior guard Cody Demps said. “We love having the fans right on top of the action.”
- For the first time in Big Sky Conference basketball history, the men’s and women’s postseason tournaments will be held at a neutral site – the Reno Events Center – and every team will qualify. “That’s huge change,” Katz said. “No matter what happens during the year, good or bad, you now have to have one eye on the conference tournament.”
- The Hornets have improved their conference record every season during Katz’s previous seven years. The Hornets won one game in his first season. They had a school-record 13 conference wins last season as Katz was named the Mid-Major Coach of the Year and Big Sky Conference Co-Coach of the Year. During the offseason, he signed a five-year extension through the 2019-20 season.
- Sac State’s basketball success extends beyond the hardwood. The team enters the 2015-16 season with an overall GPA of 3.04. Of the 24 players who have expired their eligibility under Katz, 22 have graduated and one other is on course to get his degree.
Sacramento State men at a glance
at Arizona State
at UC Davis
at Portland State*
at Montana State*
at Eastern Washington*
at Weber State*
at Idaho State*
at Northern Colorado*
at North Dakota*
Big Sky tournament (Reno)
* Big Sky Conference game; ** Sacramento Invitational at Sacramento State