Ailene Voisin

Opinion: UC Davis, Sacramento State plot to retain momentum

Sacramento State coach Brian Katz watches his team fall behind early in the first half against Eastern Washington during a Big Sky tournament semifinal in Missoula, Mont., on Friday.
Sacramento State coach Brian Katz watches his team fall behind early in the first half against Eastern Washington during a Big Sky tournament semifinal in Missoula, Mont., on Friday. The Associated Press

ANAHEIM – This has been a hoot, really.

Both of the area’s Division I men’s college basketball programs captured at least 20 games, dominated their home courts and advanced to the semifinals in their respective conference tournaments.

So if not worthy of a roar, the words can be whispered. The drought finally ends. In a matter of months, the Valley’s reputation as a parched college basketball wasteland has taken a significant hit – thanks to two teams in the same year, no less. The UC Davis Aggies and Sacramento State Hornets generated some serious chatter around the water cooler. More impressively, they became winners for the first time at the D-I level.

But can it last? Is success sustainable? Or is this a one-sip-and-out deal?

The schools are aggressively planning and plotting, intent on retaining momentum and relevance for as long as conceivably possible. Though neither institution is scheduling a parade or preparing for the NCAA Tournament after being bounced from their conference tournaments, both programs will compete in less prestigious postseason events during the upcoming week.

The Aggies, whose elimination in the Big West tournament cost them a chance at an automatic bid to the Big Dance, are invited to the junior prom because they captured their first regular-season conference championship. While the National Invitation Tournament is strictly a consolation prize, especially for a team that finished 25-6 overall and was a perfect 14-0 inside the Pavilion, it has endured for decades and still resonates within the basketball community.

The Hornets’ immediate plans are less grandiose. After losing to Eastern Washington in Missoula, Mont., to end the year 20-11, they will play Portland on Wednesday in the Postseason Tournament, one of two lesser-known postseason events designed to accommodate smaller schools or emerging programs that fail to make the NCAA Tournament cut.

And given where the Hornets have been? The decades of single-digit victories? The ongoing challenge to entice quality recruits to a beautiful campus with the one noticeable eyesore – an outdated, undersized, high school-caliber gym? Heck, they would dance in the street if asked.

“When you reflect back, look at the fact our kids won 20 games for the first time at the major college level, and came within a basket of being (regular-season) league champs, that’s a lot of progress,” Hornets coach Brian Katz said Saturday as he traveled on the team bus, surmising he was somewhere near the Montana-Washington state line. “The main thing is that we want to use the buzz, the vibe that we created this year to move forward. We want to capitalize on the momentum.”

Aggies coach Jim Les, who similarly has done a marvelous job transforming a program still in its D-I infancy, is tabling talk about the legacy of his senior-laden roster or the caliber of his incoming talent until after the NIT. But that hasn’t stopped his bosses from acknowledging his unique appeal as a former NBA player, engaging personality and strong tactician. They’ve revealed their attempts to secure his presence with a long-term deal; his current contract expires after next season.

Before the tournament, UCD Chancellor Linda Katehi insisted she would “find a way” and produce a package that provides long-term financial stability, while increasing the recruiting budget and improving the weight-training facilities and tutorial services for Aggies student athletes. In a back room inside the Honda Center late Friday, athletic director Terry Tumey again noted that negotiations with his head coach are already underway.

“We want Jim here,” said Tumey, upbeat and encouraged even after the loss to Hawaii. “We know it’s not going to be easy, because other schools are going to come after him. But we are going to be creative, like other schools are with their coaches these days, because we know what he means to us.”

Katz, who has three years remaining on his own deal, in many respects has the tougher sell. Though UCD’s academic requirements force Les to recruit on both a regional and national scale – which stretches the budget – the Aggies’ Pavilion is a modern, appealing venue that seats 5,670.

The Hornets gym, by comparison, is a creaky old building that attracts a maximum of 1,200 fans. Yet even while enduring Saturday’s long drive from Missoula to Spokane, Wash., where the Hornets planned to fly out from Sunday morning, Katz sounded as upbeat and encouraged as Tumey.

“We put our hats on, heads down, stomp forward, and we make up our minds that we are not going to think about the facilities as a team and a program,” Katz said. “When the question is asked – would a better facility help recruiting? – of course the answer is a resounding, ‘yes.’ But the biggest thing that will help is to continue creating interest in the team. Even our marketing people are saying that, in terms of advertising, it’s night and day from what it was. Now we have to keep it going, but I believe it (facility) will get done.”

The Hornets lose their best player (Mikh McKinney) to graduation, as do the Aggies (Corey Hawkins). But Katz returns three starters, signed two recruits early, and has five freshmen on his roster. Now that his team has enjoyed its first winning season in 22 years, he isn’t ready to turn out the lights. No, he says, the CIT isn’t the NCAA Tournament or even the NIT. But the more games his team plays, the more exposure his club generates, the lighter his step.

“It used to take me 15 minutes to walk around campus,” he added. “Now it takes me 40 minutes. Everyone wants to stop and talk. It has just become a whole different vibe.”

The Aggies? Different area code, same atmosphere. The plan on both campuses is to stay the course.

Call The Bee’s Ailene Voisin, (916) 321-1208.

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