Hometown Report

Sacramento State ready to ‘put on our big-boy pants’ for prime-time basketball games

Coach Brian Katz and the Sacramento State men’s basketball team faces some prime-time games this week. In this 2015 file photo, he shows his displeasure with a referee’s call.
Coach Brian Katz and the Sacramento State men’s basketball team faces some prime-time games this week. In this 2015 file photo, he shows his displeasure with a referee’s call. Special to The Bee

His best player is out for the season, undone by back surgery.

Others athletes are banged up, tender to the touch. The schedule is daunting and expectations modest to high, and here’s Brian Katz summarizing all of it, booming of typical good cheer.

The 10th-year Sacramento State men’s basketball coach is in his element: early morning coffee, late-morning preaching movement on offense, stops on defense and a 24/7 desire to discuss the joy of the college game with players who stick around four seasons and actually look forward to graduation.

The season is here, three games old, and the Hornets will compete near and far, including taking on UC Davis on Tuesday night at Golden 1 Center in a prime-time opportunity to show off the regional product.

“We have injuries, but that’s the way it goes,” Katz said with a laugh. “No one feels sorry for you. You know how it is – 50 percent don’t care about your problems and the other 50 are glad you have them.

“But we’re big boys. We still put on our big-boy pants.”

The Hornets will have to buckle up as they ready for a whirlwind week.

Sac State (1-2) is one of eight teams from across the country competing in the Wooden Legacy, a three-day, 12-game bracket in Fullerton that features programs from big conferences such as Georgia to smaller ones, such as Saint Mary’s of Moraga. Each game will be televised on various ESPN networks.

Sac State opens on Thanksgiving night against San Diego State. What better way to showcase your brand than on cable on a holiday? Pass the stuffing and drumsticks, and don’t touch the clicker.

“The interest in athletics here on campus has really escalated,” Katz said, pointing to school president Robert S. Nelsen and athletic director Mark Orr as primary reasons. “We’re excited. Mark Orr pulled it off for us to be in the Wooden Legacy. Every mid-major program in the country like us is clamoring to get on TV. You lay that out on anyone’s desk in America, and they’re taking it.

“We had to get out of some games to make it happen, but it’s a great thing.”

What’s a painful thing is the plight of Marcus Graves.

Sac State’s senior co-captain underwent back surgery in September. He started 31 games last season and averaged 13.9 points and 5.3 assists. He tried to convince his coach to let him back this season, to hold off surgery, or to speed up rehabilitation after surgery.

Katz wouldn’t have it, saying, “You need a year. We’ll get him back better than ever, and I told him he’d be older, stronger, wiser.”

The Hornets return some experience, including forward Justin Strings, a 6-foot-7 senior forward from Carson who has scored in double-figures in 23 consecutive games. He led Sac State in scoring last season at 15.9 points per game.

Despite scoring just 21 points as a freshman, Strings is the 15th player in Hornets history, starting in 1948, to score 1,000 career points. His presence helps offset the graduation of Eric Stuteville, one of the program’s greatest interior players. Stuteville was picked first overall by the Northern Arizona Suns in the NBA G League draft last month.

Strings went for 44 points on 19-of-23 shooting in an exhibition win over UC Santa Cruz to start the season. He is also a three-time Big Sky Conference All-Academic pick, and a sound reason why the Hornets expect to improve on its 13-18 season a year ago.

“He’s very versatile, and he can score down low and mid-range, and he’s shooting close to 30 percent from 3,” Katz said. “As a team, we shoot it better than ever. Strings is an all-conference guy we can build around.

“And defensively, we’ve been really good. We’re holding opponents to 38 percent shooting and 26 percent from 3. We’re a willing group committed to defense.”

Joe Davidson: 916-321-1280, @SacBee_JoeD

Related stories from Sacramento Bee