WAYNE, Neb. – Over here in Wayne, America, the men’s college basketball team is waking up the echoes, so to speak.
It’s not so much a surprise that the Wayne State College Wildcats are improving under third-year Coach Jeff Kaminsky, but the current squad has achieved some milestones that haven’t occurred in a couple of decades.
Heading into a weekend doubleheader at Rice Auditorium against Winona State and Upper Iowa, Wayne State is 11-3 overall and tied for second in the Northern Sun Conference South Division with a 6-2 mark.
Yes, there is still a long ways to go before anything is decided, but enthusiasm hasn’t been this high here since Greg McDermott – now the head coach at Creighton University – was the Wildcat coach.
Kaminsky already had 29 years of collegiate head coaching experience and over 450 career wins when he was hired. His first team at Wayne State (2016-17) was 10-19 overall, doubling the win total from the previous season.
The Wildcats were 14-17 and 9-13 in league play last season, another four-win improvement from his first season at the helm.
After opening this season with a split against talented teams Pittsburg State and Central Missouri, Wayne State set sail on a nine-game win streak, the longest since the 1999-2000 season, McDermott’s last at Wayne State.
The Wildcats opened the NSIC slate with three consecutive road victories. They won for the first time at Augustana since 2000 and a week later snapped a 10-game losing streak to Upper Iowa that spanned five years.
Augustana avenged the setback with a game-winning 3-pointer to beat Wayne State at the buzzer at Rice and Wayne State also lost 77-71 at Sioux Falls, but another historic victory took place last weekend.
The Wildcats beat Southwest Minnesota State, 75-68, in Marshall, Minnesota, snapping a 19-game losing streak at SMSU dating back to February 12, 2000.
“We have a really good mix of players,” Kaminsky said. “We have three seniors, one has been in the program five years and another four and those three guys were an integral part of the team last year and their experience has been a huge part of our success.”
Interestingly, Wayne State lost seven seniors from last season.
“Usually that’s a recipe for disaster for the following year,” Kaminsky said. “But those seven seniors had a lot to do with where we’re at now. When we came into the program and had no seniors and those seven guys were juniors at the time and had little success at all, I think they bought into some things and established the type of culture we wanted here.
“That led to a lot more competitiveness. I think that group had a lot to do with building the right kind of culture here. And, we were fortunate that the three seniors we have this year were our three most talented players and we felt like they were going to have a real good season. We still had a good nucleus of guys back, the most important thing was our three seniors were going to have to come back and be great leaders and we were also going to have to have some of our new guys come in and play important roles.”
Senior guard Trevin Joseph (Miami, Florida) leads the team in scoring with 16.8 points per game, while senior forward Kendall Jacks (Bettendorf, Iowa) is next with 15.3 points per game and senior point guard Vance Janssen (Blair, Nebraska) contributes 12.1 points per contest.
Jacks, in his fifth season in the program, is a two-time all-conference performer and has scored in double figures every game this season. Janssen is in his fourth season at Wayne State while Joseph transferred from Broward College (Fla.) last season.
“When I took the job we said two things, we want guys who are going to compete every day and guys who are great teammates and if you’re not willing to do these things you’re probably not going to be here,” Kaminsky said. “To the credit of the guys that stayed when things weren’t going well they really lived up to those two things. We have guys who are committed to the game and their teammates, and they’re talented.”
Kaminsky recruited freshmen Jordan Janssen (Lincoln East) and Nick Ferrarini (Millard North) and each have been starters the entire season. Janssen averages 9.7 points and 7.0 rebounds per game and has four double-doubles while Ferrarini is one of the team’s best 3-point shooters.
“As we look back on us really being competitive last year but not getting over the hump, two things we needed to improve was our rebounding and being a little bit more consistent shooting the basketball,” Kaminsky said. “We’ve been a lot better rebounding and Jordan is a big reason for that.”
Defense has long been a Kaminsky staple and that’s no different here. The Wildcats lead the NSIC in scoring defense (64.8 ppg.), field goal percentage defense (.412), scoring margin (+14.0), turnover margin (+4.6) and steals per game (8.7).
“There are so many skilled teams and players in this league, I don’t know if a philosophy is going to work to just outscore people,” Kaminsky said. “We’ve had to do it with being pretty efficient offensively but having a little different style defensively. We led the league in forced turnovers (my first two seasons) and were first or second in turnover margin and we’re right up there in those two categories again.
“To me it comes down to having real good possessions and there’s two ways you get more possessions, rebounding and turnovers. I think one of the things we’ve been real good at all three years is taking care of the ball and forcing turnovers.”
Wayne State has had just one winning season in the last 11 (17-12 in 2012-13) and its last winning season in the NSIC was 10-8 in 2007-08. Its first season in the NSIC (199-2000) was its best-ever finish, sharing the regular season title with Winona State (15-3, 26-6 overall). That team was Central Region runner-up to eventual NCAA Division II national champion Metro State.
The 2000-01 squad tied for third in the conference at 12-6 but since then no team has finished higher than fourth.
Council Bluffs Abraham Lincoln product Tony Bonner and Ben Dentlinger give the Wildcats depth in the front line. Al’Tavius Jackson and Luke TerHark provide sparks as reserve guards.