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Low-major programs faced with slim margin for error

Sacramento State head coach Brian Katz had the Hornets and their fans thinking an NCAA Tournament berth was a possibility in 2015-16 until he lost star player Cody Demps to an injury that derailed their season. (Rich Pedroncelli / AP)
Sacramento State head coach Brian Katz had the Hornets and their fans thinking an NCAA Tournament berth was a possibility in 2015-16 until he lost star player Cody Demps to an injury that derailed their season. (Rich Pedroncelli / AP)
By John Marshall Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – Sacramento State’s best hope of reaching its first NCAA Tournament came in 2015-16.

The Hornets were coming off a 21-win season, had a strong returning nucleus and momentum on their side. Sac State opened the season by winning at Arizona State and beat Seattle University, on the road two days later.

The Hornets went through a tough nonconference schedule 7-4 and had their sights on a Big Sky Conference title.

One misplaced knee changed their season.

Cody Demps, the team’s senior floor leader and go-to player, was injured in early December when a teammate’s knee struck his thigh. In Sac State’s conference opener against Portland State, Demps was hit in the exact same spot with, yes, another knee.

The second blow caused swelling so bad it needed to drained. He missed the next nine games, draining the life out of Sac State’s season.

The Hornets went into a tailspin without Demps and finished the season 14-17.

The hope of an NCAA Tournament gone in one blow.

“When he finally got back – it took him a while because it was pretty severe injury – we rebounded a little bit, but we were so different without him,” Sac State coach Brian Katz said. “He was our leading scorer, leading rebounder and leading assist guy. That’s tough to overcome.”

The schools in Division I college basketball’s lower tier already have slim margins for error the larger schools don’t have to worry about, facing disadvantages of finances and facilities to recruiting and often-brutal travel.

Hoping to compete against those larger schools without a key player is about like trying to chop down an oak tree with a butter knife.

Low-majors can’t recruit the same types of players as the high-, even mid-majors, so a key loss means sending an even less-skilled player onto the court. The injury also can have a trickle-down effect, forcing a young, inexperienced player who may not be ready for the spotlight or know the system enough to be effective.

High-major schools still take a hit when a top player goes down, yet can usually replace them with another McDonald’s All-American or five-star recruit off the bench.

Huge difference.

“Losing you best player can be devastating at this level,” Northern Arizona coach Jack Murphy said.

He should know. The Lumberjacks are in their third straight season of suffering.

Murphy had Northern Arizona tracking upward by his third season, leading the Lumberjacks to the 2015 tournament title game. The next year, two of NAU’s best players suffered season-ending injuries by the 10th game of the season. The Lumberjacks went 5-25.

In 2016-17, the Lumberjacks lost their starting shooting guard during the preseason and starting point guard before conference started. They finished 9-23.

Murphy hoped this would be the year the injuries would finally cease and the Lumberjacks would get back on track.

Nope. Guard Malcolm Allen, a graduate transfer from Stanford being counted on for leadership, injured his foot three games into the season and hasn’t played since. The Lumberjacks are 4-20 headed into Saturday’s game against Southern Utah.

“You wonder when it’s going to end,” Murphy said.

It’s more than injuries.

Transfers have skyrocketed in college basketball, eclipsing 800 last year. Many were low-major players seeking a stiffer challenge and a brighter spotlight.

The low-major problem: A player develops quickly or shoots up 6 inches, the opportunities to play up a level or two increase. Same thing with graduate transfers; play four years at a low-major, why not test yourself at a mid-major or high-major without having to sit out a year?

“The culture tells that young man that’s what he should do,” Longwood coach Jayson Gee said. “When he has a big game, he’s going to have certain people around him that are going to say you should graduate and go to a higher level. That’s just the reality of what we do. We accept it, we move on.”

It’s not always easy.

Longwood lost forward Kris Lane to Virginia Commonwealth as a graduate transfer after he averaged 12.7 points and 6.7 rebounds last season.

Jackson State saw Edric Dennis, its leading scorer from a year ago, head to Texas-Arlington, cutting a 15-point hole in the Tigers’ roster.

Beyond the statistics, the programs lose a player who knows the system, knows how the coach wants the team to play. That’s just as valuable.

“Sometimes, that hole isn’t easy to fill when someone leaves,” Jackson State coach Wayne Brent said.

Even if no one transfers, no one gets injured, the margin for error remains slim.

When low-majors play teams up the DI food chain, they have to be near perfect to overcome the talent disparity. They can’t have a bad shooting night, break down defensively, miscommunicate, play lethargically, even after a long bus trip. Everyone has to be fundamentally sound and in synch.

Pulling it all together falls on the coaches, who have to be masters of player development to survive.

Players at the high-major level come prepackaged, to a certain degree. They’ve played for high-level AAU coaches and, even if their fundamentals are weak, have the athletic ability to overcome their deficiencies. They still have plenty to learn once arriving at college, but the curve bows quite a bit less.

Low-major players almost always have some shortcoming – too short, too skinny, offensively limited, not athletic enough – holding them back from playing at a higher level.

A focus on fundamentals are paramount for low-major teams to succeed and coaches have to develop the players individually, to become better shooters, improve their footwork, learn to dribble penetrate and kick out, play defense on the college level.

“If you’re going to be successful at the lower levels, I truly believe you have to be an expert at teaching the game of basketball,” said former Wake Forest and South Carolina coach Dave Odum. “Everybody tabs them as Division I players right away. Yeah, they are, but they are also players who are not necessarily fundamentally sound. If you are a low-to-mid-major coach, you’ve got to be able to teach them how to play the game and be able to develop them individually.”

The low-majors’ only chance rides on it. Even then, it might not be enough.

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