It's time to get ready for the Big Sky season again with some overviews of each team this month, and then eventually we'll get into more detailed looks at everything.
What They Lost: One of the biggest reasons for optimism around Sac State this year is the fact that they did not lose a lot of key contributors from last season's team. The biggest loss was Jordan Salley, a forward who played about 40% of the team's minutes last year. He was a nice piece for them, as he shot 60% from the floor and was a solid rebounder in the frontcourt. Their other loss was forward Joey Quigley, who got some nice hype as a versatile forward when he committed, but never converted it into any reliable production. He was a bit player that struggled to produce when he did play. They did not lose anyone else that played any type of minutes, even inconsistently.
Who Returns: The other big reason for optimism around the Hornets is their backcourt, which certainly has a strong case to be the best in the league. Dylan Garrity and Mikh McKinney are both seniors, and both could be first-team all-conference players. Garrity has had a sterling four-year career, turning from a pass-first PG with limited scoring ability as a freshman (his assist rate was 12th in the nation his first year) into a dynamic scoring guard who is still a good distributor. Last year he made 48% of threes on five attempts per game. You may also remember his 70 footer to beat Weber State, one of the best moments in college basketball last year.
McKinney, meanwhile, was one of the most improved players in the Big Sky last year. He greatly improved his scoring efficiency (53% twos, 33% threes, and 82% FT on plenty of attempts), while becoming one of the best assist men in the conference, surpassing even Garrity. Improbably, he was better than Garrity last season, and should be poised for a big senior year. Cody Demps is the nominal small forward, but has the versatility to play some different spots. He would be better served not taking so many threes (9/44 last year), but is a glue guy for them. Dreon Bartlett also returns in the backcourt as a three-point shooting specialist off the bench.
Up front, they will rely on Eric Stuteville, a big man that got better and better as the season went along. Toward the end of the year, he showed flashes as a diverse scorer in the post who holds his own on the glass. His potential is probably as one of the better bigs in the conference. Zach Mills is only 6'5'', but he did some nice things for them as a junior, and can play the four spot. He is a good outside shooter, and decent on the defensive glass. Senior Alex Tiffin will be in his second year, and there seems to be some optimism about him, though he didn't flash a ton as a junor. He shot just 43% last year. Nick Hornsby is one other returner that will contribute. He was a well regarded recruit coming into last year, though he got lost in the shuffle a bit as a freshman. In a bit under 15 minutes per game, he showcased nice versatility and skill on the glass, but struggled to score. He shot just 38% on twos and 4/18 from three. If he can find good shots and become a bit better putting the ball in the basket, he will be a nice all-around player for them.
Newcomers: One name to watch it Mason Stuteville (brother of Eric), who seems to be getting some pub as one of the best freshman in the league. He is a dynamic big man (though thin), who appears to have some inside-out capability. He will add another dynamic to the frontcourt which was a weak point for the squad last year. Another big man in the recruiting class is 6'10'' James Herrick, who averaged 11 and 11 last year, and is a bit more of a traditional big man as compared to Stuteville. They also have early signee Justin Strings, a 6'6'' forward who fits in the mold of shorter power forwards which have been so effective in the Big Sky. He averaged 18 and 8 last year and looks like he will be an impact player for them in time.
They also signed two guards. One is 5'10'' Jiday Ugbaja, a very good athlete who could be a great shooter for them. He may not have an impact right away because of the other depth, but he could be starting as soon as next season. He could be joined next year by Marcus Graves, who had the impressive stat line of 17.6 PPG/5.4 RPG/ 4.6 APG last year. Coach Katz compared his game to Garrity's, calling him a "shooter that can drive." Similar to Ugbaja, it's hard to say how many minutes will be available this year, but he should be an important long-term piece for them.
General Outlook: Sacramento State has never had a winning record at the DI level, but this looks like the year it will happen. In a league often dictated by guard play, they are in great hands with a senior backcourt of Garrity-McKinney. Though the frontcourt doesn't have the experience yet, they appear to have the talent with the Stuteville brothers and Zach Mills. After getting a taste of the Big Sky tournament last year, they are one of the favorites heading into this season. Don't be surprised if they not only have a winning record, but win the league, which would have been unthinkable just a few years ago.
Note: This post was updated to include the part about Nick Hornsby, who I forgot about on my first posting.
Follow me on Twitter @bigskybball