Hot start puts men’s basketball atop Big Sky Conference


Senior guard Mikh McKinney powers past Trey Kennedy of Southern Utah at the Hornets’ Nest on Saturday, Jan. 3, 2015. McKinney scored a game-high 21 points in a 90-75 victory over the Thunderbirds.

Mike McGough

Through eight games of conference play, Sacramento State’s men’s basketball team has compiled a 7-1 record that places the team alone atop the Big Sky Conference standings.

The hot start for Sac State marks the school’s best eight-game beginning to a conference season since the team joined the Big Sky in the 1996-97 campaign.

Coach Brian Katz recounted the speech he gave to his players after the team took control of first place in the conference following a Jan. 17 victory.

“I told our guys,” Katz said. “I said ‘Hey look. The next 36 hours I want you to get used to that feeling. When you wake up Monday morning, you’re going to be grinding. But get used to how that feels, just think about it, how does that feel? And then when you show up on Monday, you better be playing like underdogs like you are.’”

The Hornets are 13-6 on the season overall. If they can continue at their current rate, they may not be considered underdogs for long.

Sac State’s talent and potential have gathered some national attention. In his Jan. 19 edition of “Bracketology,” ESPN college basketball analyst Joe Lunardi projected the Hornets to qualify for the NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Championship for the first time in program history. Lunardi projected Sac State to enter March Madness as a No. 16 seed in the West and play against No. 1 Duke in the first round.

As exciting as an NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament berth would be for the Hornets, Katz and his players tend to not look too far ahead into the future.

“We’re excited, but look—the league is one third over,” Katz said. “If we’re in first at the end of this thing, that would be a little different.”

The 7-1 beginning to conference play has not come without excitement.

A 63-61 victory at North Dakota on Jan. 8 came at the hands of a last-possession floater by senior guard Mikh McKinney. A home win over the Idaho Vandals Jan. 15 saw the Hornets erase an 11-point deficit after McKinney scored 27 points in the second half alone. And a career-high 33 points for McKinney propelled to their seventh conference win of the season Saturday at Weber State.

But perhaps the biggest win of all came Jan. 17 over the Eastern Washington Eagles.

The Eagles—who entered the game 4-0 in conference and ready to face the Hornets, who were then 4-1—came to the Nest to engage in a battle for the Big Sky’s top spot. Sac State walked away victorious, as a career-best 22 points by junior guard Cody Demps fueled a big 90-77 win for the Hornets.

“Any time you can get a league win and see yourself in the standings on top, that’s definitely a good feeling,” Demps said. “It also gives us confidence, too, knowing that anyone coming up, we know we can handle them.”

The Hornets are second in the conference with a field goal percentage of 49.4, just shy of Eastern Washington’s 49.5 percent shooting rate, and are drilling 40.9 percent of their 3-point attempts, which is the third highest mark in the Big Sky.

Katz has attributed his team’s success early in the conference season to senior leadership, depth and a veteran presence on the court. The Hornets managed to keep all five of last season’s starters on the roster this year, including team leaders and co-captains McKinney and Dylan Garrity, both seniors.

“I wouldn’t bet against them,” Katz said of the duo.

So far this season, McKinney leads the Hornets in scoring with an average of 18.8 points per game—a mark that places him second only to Eastern Washington’s Tyler Harvey in the Big Sky.

For McKinney, who is in his third season with the program, success is a function not only of strong play, but of strong bonds between teammates.

“It always helps you when you have camaraderie with everybody,” McKinney said. “When you have a family-type atmosphere, it makes it easy to come to the gym every day.”

McKinney ranks third in the Big Sky in assists, averaging 5.3 per game.

His teammate Garrity is one of McKinney’s biggest fans.

“It’s incredible the shots that he can make,” Garrity said of McKinney. “He’s the engine of our team.”

Garrity has scored an average of 13.7 points per game so far this season. A big part of his success has been his ability to drain 44.2 percent of his 3-pointers, which ranks seventh in the Big Sky.

The two guards entered this season having already played two full seasons together. During pre-conference play, McKinney and Garrity each crossed over the 1,000-point threshold in their careers at Sac State.

But success for the Hornets does not lie solely on the shoulders of the team’s two top shooters. Sac State has also played solid defense throughout the year, holding opponents to make a league-lowest 32.5 percent of 3-pointers. The team also leads the Big Sky in assists with 281.

Additionally, the emphasis that opposing defenses have placed on McKinney and Garrity often leads to better scoring opportunities for Sac State’s other players.

In addition to Demps’ big game against Eastern Washington, forward Nick Hornsby also posted a career-high scoring night on Dec. 1 with 20 points in a 65-56 pre-conference win over Utah Valley. On both occasions, Katz said the players’ big nights were possible because the opposition paid so much attention to Sac State’s top two scoring players.

Home court has been a big factor for the Hornets, who are 4-0 in conference and 8-1 overall at home.

“We’re comfortable playing here,” McKinney said. “We’ve got some great fans out here, so it feels good when we play at home.”

With more than half the season still to be played, Sac State will have an opportunity to host the Big Sky Championship at the Nest if they can maintain their spot atop the conference totem pole.

There is still a long road ahead for the Hornets, but if the team continues to play at its current rate, Sac State could very well get its first taste of March Madness in program history.