Men’s basketball secures winning record for 2014-15 season

Mike McGough

As men’s basketball at Sacramento State continues to win, the buzz surrounding the team grows louder and louder.

With a 64-60 win over the Portland State Vikings at the Hornets Nest Saturday afternoon, the men improved their 2014-15 season record to 16-6 overall, clinching the team’s first winning season in Division I history as well as the team’s first winning Big Sky season since the 2004-05 squad went 8-6 in conference play.

“It just has a different vibe right now,” said Sac State coach Brian Katz. “It’s almost like our fans, I think, expect us to win.”

The victory over Portland State—a hard-fought battle in which the Hornets survived a blown 14-point lead—marked Sac State’s seventh straight triumph, and has Sac State atop the Big Sky Conference with a 10-1 conference record.

Through 11 games of the conference season, the Hornets are shooting 51.5 percent from the floor and 46.5 percent from long distance, while also averaging 16.6 assists per game. The team is leading all three of these marks in the Big Sky.

Sac State is also averaging less than 10 turnovers per game after a preconference season in which Katz repeatedly named turnover trouble as the team’s biggest hindrance.

Seniors and team leaders Mikh McKinney and Dylan Garrity, who are in their respective third and fourth seasons in Sac State’s program, have seen both ends of the spectrum.

In Garrity’s first season as the team’s point guard in 2011-12, the Hornets went 10-18 overall and 5-11 in the Big Sky. The following year, with both guards on the roster, Sac State improved to 8-12 in conference play.

“We have better players on our team than in previous years and we’re more together,” Garrity said. “We didn’t have any knuckleheads that were messing around in the locker room before. And everybody in that locker room wants to win, and we all have the same common goal, and that’s to get to the tournament and win the tournament.”

Garrity and McKinney both said that having years of experience playing under Katz has helped the team find a culture of success.

“Now you’re starting to get guys who have just been under the system, have experience,” McKinney said, referring to himself and Garrity. “Now, we’ve got five freshmen this year, so when they’re seniors, they’re going to have all five people who’ve been here for four years, so I think that’s just a big thing. Team culture, just starting to create a culture.”

This year, Garrity has drilled 44.6 percent of attempted 3-pointers, a top 10 mark in the Big Sky. McKinney has scored an average of 18.9 points per game, which places him in the top three of the conference.

In Katz’s inaugural season as Sac State’s coach in 2008-09, the Hornets managed just two victories and went 1-15 against Big Sky opponents. Since that season, the squad has upped its conference win total every year.

“A few years ago, we were starving for any win we could get,” Katz said.

Katz contrasted his earlier years coaching at Sac State with this year’s experience.

“You’re coaching at that point every single play, every possession, every pass, every dribble because you just know you’re disadvantaged,” Katz said, referring to Sac State’s rebuilding era. “With us now, we certainly have plays and sets and things, but, you know, we’ve got veteran guys we can give a little freedom.”

Students and fans have taken notice of the Hornets’ winning ways. In early conference play from Jan. 1 to Jan. 15, attendance totals at The Nest sat in the 500 to 700 range.

Since taking control of first place with a Jan. 17 victory over Eastern Washington University, the Hornets have made use of overflow bleachers to accommodate their fans. Sac State’s three-game home stand from Jan. 29 to Feb. 7 pulled crowds of 1,215, 1,407 and 1,145.

The Hornets have established a team worthy of Joe Lunardi’s attention.

Lunardi, who coined the term “Bracketology” and makes NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament projections as ESPN’s college basketball expert, picked Sac State to qualify for a play-in game to March Madness in four consecutive brackets between Jan. 26 and Feb. 5. In his Feb. 9 bracket, Lunardi projected Sac State to qualify as a No. 16 seed in the West.

The winner of a hypothetical play-in would go on to face projected Midwest No. 1 seed University of Kentucky—the top-ranked team in the nation according to ESPN and the USA Today Coaches Poll. The No. 16 seed in the West would go on to face No. 1 seed Gonzaga.

But projections and hype mean little to Katz and his players at the moment. They’re focused on the here and now.

“We don’t look too much into the history or into, like, breaking records or anything like that,” McKinney said. “We just want to go out there and win.”