The Sacramento State men’s basketball team came within a basket of winning the Big Sky Conference championship in the program’s breakthrough season two years ago.
It appeared the Hornets were going to continue to build on that 21-win campaign last season. Sac State upset Arizona State 66-63 in the season opener in Tempe, Ariz., and won five of its first six games.
But then senior guard Cody Demps missed nine games with a leg injury, and the Hornets never rebounded. They finished 14-17 overall, placed 10th in the Big Sky and fell to Montana 70-53 in the conference tournament quarterfinals in Reno.
The Hornets’ 6-12 regular-season conference record ended a streak of six consecutive years in which the team improved under ninth-year coach Brian Katz.
Yet when the Hornets say they believe they have the stuff to get back to where they were two seasons ago, it’s not false optimism.
“Hopefully this year we get to a point where it doesn’t come down to a basket – hopefully we’re a couple of games ahead,” said 6-foot-11 senior center Eric Stuteville. “That play, losing by a basket (at Northern Arizona), still sticks in your craw a little bit. So wanting to get back to (playing for a championship) is always a goal.”
Sac State returns four starters, five veteran reserves and a redshirt.
Stutteville and fellow senior captain Nick Hornsby, a 6-foot-7 forward, have played in a combined 186 games during their respective four-year Sac State careers. Hornsby was the team’s top rebounder (6.9 per game) last season, and Stuteville accounted for nearly 40 percent of the team’s blocked shots with 58.
Also back are the team’s two most productive players from 2015-16, juniors Justin Strings and Marcus Graves.
Strings, a forward, averaged a team-leading 15.5 points, was second with 6.7 rebounds and made only 29 turnovers despite averaging 31.5 minutes in 31 games. Graves, a guard, averaged 12.2 points, led the team in assists with 136 and played a team-high 34.4 minutes per game.
Senior Trevis Jackson, junior Jiday Ugbala and sophomore Jeff Wu, all guards, were regulars off the bench.
“Experience matters at every level,” Katz said. “But I think in our conference, it really matters because of the travel. Teams that have done well usually have a lot of seniors and guys who are low-maintenance. They don’t get worn down by the grind of the season.”
Katz also expects forward-guard Chibueze Jacobs and point guard Izayah Mauriohooho-Le’afa to contribute immediately.
The 6-4 Jacobs is the most athletic player Katz has had at Sac State, while the 20-year-old Mauriohooho-Le’afa brings maturity and physicality from his experience of playing against pros in his native New Zealand.
Sac State got a jump-start on most college teams this season by playing eight games in the William Jones Cup in July in Taiwan. The Hornets played seven national teams and a pro team from the Philippines and finished a respectable 3-5.
“It was really special, a great opportunity for us to represent Sac State and the United States,” Strings said. “It was grueling, but it helped us build chemistry on and off the floor.”
The Hornets face a daunting nonconference schedule that includes two Pacific-12 opponents – at Colorado on Friday and at Washington State on Dec. 21.
The Hornets have only three nonconference games at the Nest but will play UC Davis in the Causeway Cup at Golden 1 Center on Nov. 21 as part of a doubleheader that also features San Diego State against Cal.
“It’s going to put college basketball on a whole other level, a whole new platform,” Katz said.
Sac State was picked to finish eighth in the Big Sky by the media and ninth by the coaches in preseason polls, not surprising for a program that has had just two winning seasons since joining the conference in 1996-97. But the Hornets have steadily improved in recent years. Sac State has won at least 14 games in each of the past four seasons, a first for the program since 1969 to1973.
They’ve done it partly by turning their 1,000-seat gym into a tough place to play. Sac State is 44-14 over the past four years in the Nest.
“The Nest has become good to us,” Katz said. “I’d like to think we took what was perceived as a negative and made it a positive.”
Date Opponent Time
Today at Colorado 6 p.m.
Nov. 13 at Nebraska 5 p.m.
Nov. 17 Antelope Valley 7 p.m.
Nov. 21 UC Davis (Golden One Center) 5:30
Nov. 26 San Francisco (Eastern Washingotn tourney) 3:30
Nov. 27 Denver (Eastern Washington tourney) 12 p.m.
Dec. 1 at Pacific 7 p.m.
Dec. 3 UC Merced 5 p.m.
Dec. 10 at South Dakota 2 p.m.
Dec. 17 Abilene Christian 7 p.m.
Dec. 21 at Washington State 6 p.m.
Dec. 29 Northern Colorado* 7 p.m.
Dec. 31 North Dakota* 12 p.m.
Jan. 7 at Portland State* 7 p.m.
Jan. 12 at Southern Utah* 5:30 p.m.
Jan. 14 at Northern Arizona* 11:30 am.
Jan. 19 Montana State* 7 p.m.
Jan. 21 Montana* 7 p.m.
Jan. 28 Portland State* 7 p.m.
Feb. 2 at Eastern Washington* 6 p.m.
Feb. 4 at Idaho* 7 p.m.
Feb. 9 Weber State* 7 p.m.
Feb. 11 Idaho State* 7 p.m.
Feb. 16 at Montana* 6 p.m.
Feb. 18 at Montana State* 1 p.m.
Feb. 23 Northern Arizona* 7 p.m.
Feb. 25 Southern Utah* 7 p.m.
March 2 at North Dakota* 5 p.m.
March 4 at Northern Colorado* 1 p.m.
*Big Sky Conference games
SACRAMENTO STATE ROSTER
NO. NAME POS. HT YR.
0 Marcus Graves G 6-0 Jr.
1 Chibueze Jacobs F/G 6-4 Fr.
3 Justin Strings F 6-7 Jr.
4 Jiday Ugbaja G 5-11 Jr.
11 Trevis Jackson G 5-11 Sr.
12 Grant Dressler F/G 6-6 So.
14 Jeff Wu G 6-2 So.
15 Matt Battaglia G 6-0 Fr.
20 George Dancer G 6-3 Fr.
24 Izayah Mauriohooho-Le’afa G 6-2 Fr.
30 Joshua Patton F 6-8 Fr.
33 Nick Hornsby F 6-7 Sr.
44 Eric Stuteville C 6-11 Sr.
50 James Herick C 6-10 Jr.