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Andy Furillo: For lesson in basketball effort, check out Sacramento State

Sacramento State basketball coach Brian Katz instructs guard Mikh McKinney during the second half of the Hornets’ game against Northern Arizona on March 7, 2015, at Walkup Skydome in Flagstaff, Ariz.
Sacramento State basketball coach Brian Katz instructs guard Mikh McKinney during the second half of the Hornets’ game against Northern Arizona on March 7, 2015, at Walkup Skydome in Flagstaff, Ariz. jvillegas@sacbee.com

Sacramento’s basketball buzzword of the week has been effort, specifically how the NBA team sometimes forgets how to make much of one.

For a lesson on how to incorporate a sense of urgency as a way of life, the professionals might want to go back to college and take a class at Sacramento State. Or UC Davis.

Up off J Street, the kids who play amateur ball don’t talk about effort. They just blast it, and it shows every time they run out on the floor.

In their latest tutorial, the Hornets, in their bandbox of a gym, beat Idaho State 82-71 on Thursday. They’ll put on another demonstration Saturday night at the Nest against Weber State.

The professionals will play in Los Angeles against the Clippers, so the Kings can’t attend the session by Prof. Brian Katz.

Kings coach George Karl should ask Katz for a copy of the game films. They would show what it’s like to play every second as if the fate of your world depended on it – which it does, for all of us, in everything we do.

Why do some people forget this when they get out of college, even if they were only there for a year?

Our guys have so much ‘want to’ in them. And they’re pleasers. They want to please themselves as people, as teammates. They want to please their families, their coaches. They want to please Sacramento State, and they want to please the community.

Sac State men’s basketball coach Brian Katz

“No, we don’t have that issue at all,” said Katz, discussing effort after Thursday’s win. “Our guys have so much ‘want to’ in them. And they’re pleasers. They want to please themselves as people, as teammates. They want to please their families, their coaches. They want to please Sacramento State, and they want to please the community.”

The Hornets (8-7) looked like an Ornette Coleman saxophone solo. They were a frenzy of motion, as well as sound, with amplification provided through the rumpled animation of the coatless Katz, his deep blue shirttail hanging out his back while he stood and shouted and infused energy into his earnest ensemble. They dove, they switched, and they flashed and cut. They played fast. They pressed. Every rebound became a fast-break opportunity, every steal a chance to sprint.

“Our guys are tough, they play hard, and they really try to hang their hat on their defense,” Katz said. “We’re always trying to run. We are pretty long, pretty athletic in spots, and we feel like we can press.”

Dreon Barlett, a 6-foot-3 senior guard, led Sac State with 18 points. He made a trio of three-pointers and starred in two video-worthy highlights: a baseline drive that included enough air time to begin a frequent flier account, and a dunk off a steal by freshman guard Jeff Wu as the Hornets pulled away.

“Everything creates energy,” said Barlett, a psychology major who also apparently knows a thing or two about physics. “Diving for a loose ball, getting rebounds, taking the charge – we try to do all the little things that create momentum.”

Sac State’s men’s basketball program had been moribund until last year, when it went 21-12 for its first winning season since joining Division I in 1991 and nearly won the Big Sky Conference regular-season championship. The Hornets won a game in the conference tournament and another in the CollegeInsider.com Tournament, a third-rung consolation after failing to earn an NCAA bid.

The Hornets began this season 4-0, including a win at Arizona State, but entering Thursday’s game they had lost five of six, including their first three in the Big Sky. One reason for the slump has been the loss of point guard Cody Demps, who has a lingering thigh bruise.

Everything creates energy. Diving for a loose ball, getting rebounds, taking the charge – we try to do all the little things that create momentum.

Sac State senior guard Dreon Barlett

They tried to bring Demps, their best player, back for the conference opener Jan. 2 at Portland State, but the leg gave out. Before Katz could get the team home for a recalibration, they lost two more on the road, to the Montanas.

Katz can’t replace Demps’ senior leadership, but against Idaho State he received a combined 14 points and four assists from freshman guards Wu and Grant Dressler, the guys summoned to account for Demps’ 12.4 points and 5.1 assists per game. Everybody else on the team also seemed to dig deeper into their energy repositories. Watching the lose-a-lead, come-from-behind, going-away win over Idaho State, you could see all the Hornets fracking for everything they had.

Katz said Sac State’s goals are always the same: get better every day, win the next game, have more fun than any other team in the country. No matter what, they’ll be in the Big Sky tournament in Reno. Everybody in the conference qualifies, meaning they’ll all have a shot to make the NCAAs.

“Every single team in college basketball has their eye on the tournament – always, every team,” Katz said. “Two years ago, Cal Poly was 10-19 in the Big West, and bang bang bang, they won four in a row, they won their tournament and they’re in the NCAA Tournament. So somebody who’s struggling now can win three or four in a row and go, ‘Hey, we’ve just got to right the ship, get the right chemistry here.’ 

Katz has two months of lab time to work on his mixture. Unlike another team in town, he never has to worry about his guys putting in the effort to bring out their best ingredients.

Andy Furillo: 916-321-1141, @andyfurillo

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