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Andy Furillo: Sacramento State’s Cody Demps back; beware Big Sky

Cody Demps first hurt his upper left thigh in December, when he rolled off a screen in practice and right into a teammate’s knee.

Yeah, it hurt, but not badly enough to get off the floor, and it was nothing compared to the pain the Sacramento State guard felt Jan. 2 at Portland State. Wouldn’t you know the same thing happened, with another guy’s knee crushing him in the same spot?

This time, it was serious. Demps’ thigh swelled so much they had to jam a spike in his leg to suck the blood out of the affected area.

“Huge needle,” recalled Demps, from Pleasant Grove High School. “I kind of looked away.”

Demps, the Hornets’ senior leader and game manager, missed the next nine games. And the same way the needle drained the blood out of Demps’ thigh, his injury drained the enthusiasm out of the middle of Sac State’s season.

With Demps in the lineup, the Hornets started the season 7-4. Then they went 3-7 without him, including the loss the night he got kneed in Portland.

These were times that tried coach Brian Katz’s soul. But they did not sap it. He knew his best player would be back and that upon Demps’ return, the rest of the Big Sky Conference might be in for a fall.

“I hate to say it, but I felt in the preseason like he might end up being the best player in the league,” Katz said. “I know a lot of guys would say, ‘C’mon coach.’ But he’s so versatile. He can play the point. You can post him. He’s a great rebounder.”

The nine lost games eliminated Demps’ viability as a Big Sky MVP candidate. But now he’s back on the court, and his return makes the Hornets perhaps the most intriguing team entering the Big Sky tournament, which begins March 8 in Reno. All teams qualify.

Demps launched his comeback Feb. 11 on the road against Weber State at altitude. The 4,298 feet of Utah elevation cut into his breathing time; Katz played him only 21 minutes in Ogden, and Demps scored only eight points. Two nights later in Pocatello, Idaho, the coach let him out a little more, 31 minutes, but Demps again was not terribly effective in another high-plains loss, this time to Idaho State.

Last week, Demps and the Hornets returned to sea level, and he gave form to his coach’s preseason MVP visualization. Against Eastern Washington at the Nest on Thursday night, Demps had 14 points, eight assists and four rebounds. Sac State, however, suffered its fourth consecutive loss.

On Saturday night at the Nest, Demps played another strong game, scoring 18 points before fouling out late against Idaho. More important than his numbers, he brought flow and confidence onto the floor, and he and his teammates flew past the Vandals, who own the fourth-best record in the conference. Sac State trailed by 11 points early in the second half but won 68-65.

Katz thinks the win re-established momentum and energy for the Hornets, who improved to 11-14 overall and 4-10 in the Big Sky as the clock toward Reno winds down.

“I think right now, this would have to be the biggest win of the year,” Katz said.

Before last week’s games, Katz crafted a new message to his team. He instructed his players not to view the six remaining games on the Big Sky calendar as regular-season contests. Instead, he told them to look at the rest of the schedule as a special sort of preseason leading up to the conference tournament. And for the first time since December, Katz’s team presented an image that matched his early-season expectations – a group that by the end of the season would grow into a conference championship contender.

You could see Saturday night how this is better than an 11-14 team. Sophomore guard Marcus Graves has gained experience as a floor leader. Sophomore swingman Justin Strings is averaging a team-high 15.2 points; he had 23 points and nine rebounds in the win over Idaho. Junior center Eric Stuteville takes up nearly 7 feet and 245 pounds of space underneath the basket, and steer clear of his elbow when he swings it to protect a rebound he just snagged. Junior swingman Nick Hornsby provides more power, scoring ability and hustle. Senior guard Dreon Barlett hits three-point shots off the bench, as does freshman guard Jeff Wu, who someday may become the star of the Sac State show.

Demps, though, is the guy who makes the Hornets go, the one who will give them a chance when all Big Sky roads lead to Reno.

“It’s amazing how different we are with him,” Katz said, pointing to a team assist-to-turnover ratio that has been the best in the conference when Demps is in the lineup and has been the worst when he’s not. “He moves the ball. He has senior experience; he knows the reads. You can play off him.”

Demps listed his progress on the recovery meter at 85 to 90 percent. He expects the needle to hit 100 percent in the four games before the trip over the mountains, when the Big Sky better watch out.

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