Now that it’s time to start paying closer attention to college basketball, the local men’s teams are beginning to do some things that make you think they can be relevant this year. Like winning road games.
On Saturday night, UC Davis gained some national exposure in a 71-68 win at Cal State Northridge that was televised on ESPNU. The Aggies trailed for most of the game before they pulled it together and beat a team – coached by former King and coach Reggie Theus – that began the night undefeated in the Big West Conference.
Sacramento State took a few punches to start the season but came back last week with wins at Southern Utah, 88-83, and Northern Arizona, 74-62. The successes lifted the Hornets from the bottom of the Big Sky Conference barrel into the middle rungs. A couple of victories at home this week, and the Hornets could climb even higher.
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One of these years, Sacramento-area sports fans might realize we have major-college basketball and it’s fun to watch. More than 10,000 turned out to last month to watch UC Davis and Sac State meet at Golden 1 Center, which was a start.
It would be great to see crowds fill up the Pavilion on the north shore of Putah Creek in Davis and the Nest on the south bank of the American River at Sac State, too, to elevate the profile of both teams. Who knows, one of these years they could become regular contenders for the NCAA Tournament. There is no sporting event like it, with every corner of the country having a rooting interest. It could even help take your mind off the Kings.
The Aggies and Hornets came close to making the NCAA two years ago, when UC Davis won 25 games and Sac State 21, and both advanced into the second round of their conference tournaments. They fell off last year. If they’re going to get it going again this year, they need to pick up on the momentum they generated last week.
UC Davis (11-8 overall) is just a game out of the Big West led with 3-1 record. Just about every Aggie contributed to the win over Northridge, just two nights after UC Davis lost at UC Riverside in a game that might be remembered as the turning point of the Aggies’ season.
“We’d had some really good practices leading up to Thursday, which was a complete departure of who we were as a team,” coach Jim Les said. “We didn’t do the things we’d been doing consistently – defend, move the ball, take good shots. We got out of character.”
On Friday, the team skipped practice while players and coaches holed up in a hotel room for an hour and a half in what Les called “a family intervention, so to speak.” They refocused – then beat a CSUN team that started out 3-0 in the Big West.
“Maybe we don’t win that game Saturday night if we don’t step back after playing poorly on Thursday and having that conversation we had as a group on Friday,” Les said.
The coach likes the way his players like each other, the way they each fit into different roles. He has maybe the best athlete he’s had at UC Davis in forward Chima Moneke, a community college transfer from Nebraska by way of Australia. Veteran scorer Brynton Lemar steadied the team in the win at Northridge, with senior point guard Darius Graham also keeping the Aggies on track down the stretch. The Aggies play at Hawaii this Saturday and are home against Big West-leader UC Irvine on Jan. 28. Les says his defensive-oriented team can be as good as the regular-season conference champs of two years ago.
For Sac State (5-11), the two road wins were the first in conference for the Hornets after they dropped their first three – including two at home. Coach Brian Katz’s team had a very rough nonconference season that included road losses to Power Five schools like Colorado, Nebraska and Washington State. Two of Sac State’s three nonconference wins, meanwhile, came against NAIA types such as Antelope Valley and UC Merced.
The return of last year’s starting front line of Justin Strings, Nick Hornsby and Eric Stuteville, plus point guard Marcus Graves, made you think Sac State might be better than last year’s team that won a game in the Big Sky tournament. It still might be. Katz said he saw improvement before the Southern Utah and Northern Arizona games. Now he thinks the Hornets are ready to get on a roll.
“I think our guys were lacking confidence down the stretch,” Katz said. “But I think they’ve played through that now. I think our guys have their confidence now. We’re just being solid and staying the course rather than making the foolish errors we were making earlier.”
The Hornets are home this week against Montana State on Thursday night and Montana, currently second in the Big Sky, on Saturday. Victories are crucial, Katz said, for the team to earn a first-round bye in the Big Sky tournament in Reno the first week of March.
Beyond this week, the best way for UC Davis and Sac State to make the NCAA Tournament is for their fans to insist on it. The best way to make the demand, of course, is in person.
After 22 enjoyable months of writing a sports column, I realize how much I miss covering other news. Sports and sports people and The Bee’s sports readers have been great. But I’d reported and written other news for 35 years before I became a sports columnist. And I miss my old beat.
Next up for me will be covering the federal courthouse in Sacramento. Thanks so much to everybody.
– Andy Furillo