In case you have been living in a cave, fall is in full swing. The crops are almost all out of the fields, college football is about 3⁄4 of the way done with the schedule, and we are getting ready for the 2018-19 college basketball season.
As with every year, Nebraska will start out with an exhibition against a lower tier school. Preferably against an in state institution. This year the Wayne State Wildcats pulled the winning card to take on the Cornhuskers.
To know more about this Thursday night’s foes, I reached out to former Corn Nation podcaster Pat Janssen of the Big Red Cobcast to give us some insight on the game. Pat is a alumni himself of Wayne State College and actually has a pretty cool relationship with the basketball team.
So without further adieu.
Corn Nation : So, what’s your connection to Wayne State and what were your thoughts on the college?
Pat J.: I went to Wayne State for four years (graduated too if that’s your next question), and I was the play-by-play voice for the Wildcats afterward. I actually started as the official play-by-play voice before I graduated if we’re being truly accurate.
In the fall of 2004, when I was a college junior, I was a homecoming nominee and after the parade, I walked into the football stadium to broadcast a game for the college radio station (K-92 Where The Squirrels Come to Rock). Eric Schoh, the athletic director at the time, asked me if I’d be interested in being the official voice of Wildcat basketball on KTCH that season. Mark Ahmann, who used to broadcast Michigan State games with Ernie Harwell and later hosted the Bob Devaney and Tom Osborne coaches shows, was the play-by-play voice of the Wildcats at the time. I had no business taking over his spot, but apparently the WSC brass weren’t fond of Mark’s style. They thought he was too critical of the teams, so they figured they could hire the best college kid they could find and mold them. They more or less asked me to be a homer, and I was just stoked to take the job and get paid for traveling to cover sports. I mean, hell, the second road trip on the schedule was to Hawaii with the women’s basketball team (the first one was to Vermillion, S.D. with the men’s team; that one was slightly less memorable). And then I was eventually covering all of their sports and traveling all over Minnesota and the Dakotas with the Wildcats.
After I graduated, I stuck around Wayne as the sports and news director, and I basically demanded my bosses at KTCH let me remain the voice of the Wildcats because I loved doing it so much. Demand might be a strong word considering my truly weak negotiating style, but I really wanted to keep covering WSC because it was the most fun I’d ever had at that point in my life. Normally, they didn’t like their local news and sports director going on the road with Wayne State because it took that person away from the local side of things more than they liked. So I eventually had to hire Mark to cover a bunch of the local high school games. And goddamnit, that guy was so professional. I understand why Wayne State made the move they did in 2004. They wanted their own guy and had the right to do that. But Mark also got a raw deal in my opinion, and he had earned the right to be in a much better position than covering high school games for some snot-nosed recent college grad. But he never flinched, and he was always so gracious to me. Once I became a comedian, he called and did a radio interview with me for KTCH, which was really kind of him. The whole Wayne State situation is tough for me to sort out because everyone from all sides was always so good to me. When I left Wayne to go work in minor league baseball, Eric Schoh and all the coaches treated me like royalty and really made it known how much they appreciated my work. It was a weird situation involving a bunch of good people who wanted different things, and I was just some kid excited to cover the Wildcats.
CN: What is Wayne State’s men’s basketball history like? Have they had much success over the years?
PJ: Wayne State’s history is basically Greg McDermott and a bunch of dark years. McDermott had the town and college campus buzzing in a way that I never got to fully experience. He and Tim Miles at Southwest Minnesota State were the stars of the conference at that time. I went to McDermott’s basketball camp while I was in high school, and I’ve seen videos of WSC in the Division II NCAA Tournament during the McDermott era, so I know it was an electric atmosphere. They made it to the Sweet 16 when they had guys like Eric Henderson (who is now an assistant coach at South Dakota State) playing, but they could never quite make it over the hump to the Elite 8 (in Division II, they have eight 8-team regionals hosted by the top seed, and the final three rounds of the tournament are played at a neutral site like Division I’s Final Four). It’s been pretty barren since then. Once McDermott left for North Dakota State, WSC hired his top assistant, Rico Burkett, who couldn’t match what McDermott had done. They’ve hired a few guys since then who’ve all had similar results to Rico, who’s now an assistant coach for Colorado State’s women’s basketball team under former Wildcat women’s basketball coach Ryun Williams.
To be fair, apart from women’s basketball and volleyball, Wayne State hasn’t had much success across the board since the NSIC expanded to 16 teams about a decade ago. Once the Dakota schools went to Division I and the North Central Conference blew up, the NSIC brought on the remaining NCC teams (plus a few others), and those NCC teams like Minnesota State, St. Cloud State and Minnesota-Duluth (which had previously left the NSIC) all had dramatically higher budgets and greater resources than teams like Wayne State, Minnesota State-Moorhead and Minnesota Crookston.
CN: Going to Wayne State, did you go to many games and if so what were they like? Any good stories?
PJ: I’ve been to a ton of games, but probably just one as a fan. I started at the college radio station pretty early before becoming the professional voice of the Wildcats. It’s my understanding that the atmosphere was pretty nuts in the McDermott days. It was pretty tepid by the time I got there. The most electric atmospheres I’ve seen at Wayne State are for volleyball and women’s basketball because they’ve been the best programs. When the women’s team was hosting the regional finals a few years back, Rice Auditorium was, as the kids would say, lit. That’s a wonderful place to watch a game when there’s some energy behind it.
As for good WSC stories? It’s not basketball related, but while I was still on the college radio station, Wayne State had some really bad football teams under Scott Hoffman. I was doing color commentary as the Wildcats were threatening to pull off a pretty decent upset against Concordia-St. Paul (honestly, every win was an upset at that point). Veasna Hout drops a surefire interception that would have been huge at that point in the game, and I instinctually jump up in frustration. Unfortunately, the press box at Wayne State’s Memorial Stadium was only about 6’7” and I’m 6’5”. My play-by-play guy is looking down on the field and doesn’t see it. He just hears two thuds, my head hitting the ceiling and my body hitting the floor. Turns out I had given myself a concussion. The first and only time, and it’s while I’m watching a football game. But I finished the contest, and the Cats beat the Golden Bears.
CN: What does this year’s Wildcat’s squad look like? Are they any good? Will they challenge the Nebraska men?
PJ: It’s the third year for head coach Jeff Kaminsky, who came over from Valley City State University in North Dakota. The Cats are picked 12th in the NSIC pre-season poll (which doesn’t look as bad when you realize it’s a 16-team league). Wayne State has typically recruited very heavily in Iowa, and Kendall Jacks is a part of that. He’s in his fifth year with the program after receiving a medical redshirt three years ago. He’s a big-bodied guard who’s started 87 of the 89 games he’s played in, and he’s led the team in scoring each of the past two seasons, including a 16.1 average two seasons ago. Nine different guys started for the Cats last year, with four of them returning, including their top three scorers. Besides Jacks, the other big pieces returning are fellow senior guards Trevin Joseph Jr. (Miami, Fla.) and Vance Janssen (Blair, Neb.). Joseph led the team in scoring during conference play last season, while Janssen shot at a 43-percent clip from behind the arc.
Without having seen this team play in person, I already love them because they have two guys with the last name Janssen. Even with all that Janssen firepower, I have a hard time believing they’ll be able to compete with the Huskers. I’m hoping like hell they take a giant leap forward and compete for an NSIC crown, but matching a top-25 Division I team seems like a tall order. Even if the Cats are somehow able to keep it close or pull off the improbable, it’s worth noting that Tim Miles is likely operating with a different strategy in this exhibition than Jeff Kaminsky is. Plus, as someone who grew up as a coach in the NSIC, I have a hard time believing Miles will want to embarrass the Cats too badly.
CN: If you had to pick one Corn Nation writer to fight Tweedy, who would you pick and why? Who would win?
PJ: Jon Johnston. The entertainment value would be off the charts. As long as Jon’s heart doesn’t explode, I’m taking him in an upset because I think he could get under Tweedy’s skin. But that’s a giant IF.
CN: So….do you miss us?
PJ: Of course! CornNation was fun as hell!
CN: Aside from Wayne State, you are a known Nebrasketball fan. What do you think of Tim Miles’ squad this year and what do you think they will do?
PJ: I’m cautiously optimistic. Health will be the biggest issue, along with getting a guy or two (like Thomas Allen or Nana Akenten) to take a big step forward. With no traditional big man to occupy the paint, this team is going to have to outclass people athletically and/or hope that Tanner Borchardt can rough people up enough without fouling. There is a roadmap for this team to reach the Sweet 16 or higher, but there’s also a path toward total destruction if things break the wrong way or someone gets hurt. As a lifelong Nebrasketball acolyte, it’s easy to fear the latter, but I also wouldn’t keep coming back every year without a little bit of optimism. I’m going to predict a top-four B1G seed and a trip to either the round of 32 or 16 in the Big Dance, depending on matchups.
CN: Final question, what will happen Thursday night and what do you think will be the final score for this exhibition game?
PJ: I think it might be slightly closer than people expect because this is a senior-laden Wayne State team, and typically the biggest weakness for a Division II team when they play up a level is in the paint with the big men, but that’s not exactly Nebraska’s strength either. So I think hypercompetitive senior scorers like Jacks and Joseph will keep the Cats in the game for a half. But if Nebraska can trot out a complete and healthy roster (looking at you Roby), the better athletes will eventually prevail by roughly 20-25 points.
Thanks again for Pat taking time to give us some insight on the Wayne State Wildcats. You can listen to him and all the Big Red Cobcast crew here. The Huskers take on the men from Wayne this Thursday, November 1st at 7:00 pm CST at Pinnacle Bank Arena.