October’s Baller of the Month goes out to Western Kentucky’s Captain Nick Johnson. Nick just recently led his team to a victory over the University of Kentucky for the 1st time in over 4 seasons. Nick is also the director of this year’s national tournament in Bowling Green, Kentucky, which we talk about in detail. Tune into my interview with him and his thoughts on this season so far.
Jacob Leski: Nick, congratulations on being selected as Baller of the Month, how does it feel to finally beat Kentucky for the first time in over 4 years?
Nick Johnson: It feels amazing, this win means so much to the team and myself. With a young team we were really needing a win and no one better to get that from than Kentucky. Kentucky is a good solid team, and they have had our number and no matter what we did we could not beat them til now. Losing the first point and being able to pull together to get the win was just an indescribable feeling. Outside of Nationals, during the regular season we have only beaten teams that we were supposed to beat, but we finally beat a team that many thought we couldn’t and before this match we had only scored one point. So we were able to get a good win and score some points and as a captain I could not have been more proud of my team.
JL: As captain, what did you have your team do differently against Kentucky compared to the first time you played them back in September?
NJ: When we first played Kentucky in September we had only 2 practices with the new guys and one additional practice with returners only, so going into the game we had only 3 practices under our belts. So the returners were rusty and our new guys still did not have much concept of the game yet, plus we had no game plan so we just went out there and played. This time I had discussed with other teammates (Josh Hicks, Hunter, Josh Wynn, and Dom) possible game plans and I found one that I liked and so did the others. We decided to keep ball advantage and be more organized as a group and not play as individuals. We changed our playing style and it worked, we were able to do what we wanted to do. The first point we just lost focus and Kentucky capitalized. The second and third point we took control. The third point took longer than I had wanted and was closer than I hoped but we showed guts and got the decisive point. The last point I wanted us to play slow and with 3 minutes left in the game I knew I had made a mistake because we were not getting Kentucky’s players out, but they were getting us because we were playing conservative. We barely survived thankfully to the guys being smart and pulling together.
JL: This is Western Kentucky’s first season without Hall of Fame inductee Felix Perrone. What has that transition been like for you and your teammates and what have you done as captain to try and fill the large role he had with your team for so many years?
NJ: It has been rough, Felix was our anchor on the team, the guy we could count on no matter what and he had a way with people that would make them comeback and keep playing. I played with him for 4 years and that first practice when he was not there it hit me that times have changed. I had to step up and do the best I can and do what is best for the team. As a team we knew we had to change how we played because Felix had one of the strongest arms in the league, but he also brought guidance. He was able to calm any player down and able to create some of the best strategies. This year we are striving to play as many games as we possibly can to help replace the experience we lost with Felix and some of the others we lost from last spring. This year we have to rely on each other more than usual because in the past we could rely on Felix to take charge, but now we as a team have to step up as a whole to get better. I do go to Felix for experience a lot because even though he has graduated he is still a huge part of this team.
JL: Now for the big question of the day: How are preparations for Nationals going? Are you planning on having all of the teams stay in the same hotel/motel?
NJ: Nationals is months ahead of schedule, we have 4 courts reserved already and a designated fan zone that teams can station at and be able to watch the games comfortably. With help from Josh “Jazzy” Raymer, one or more games will be livestreamed on the internet live for fans to watch online. Of course the well-known Michigan vs. The World All-Star game is back and there is a lot of hype about it, The girl’s all-star game will have their own t-shirts this year that way they can represent their pride. There are some more things being worked on that I can’t share yet, but I am pushing for this to be the best Nationals yet and I can say that I would not have gotten as much done as I have without the help of my team and friends. This is everyone’s Nationals, not just mine. For hotels, we are planning on having everyone stay in the same hotel until they run out of room. We have other hotels as well that are close to the main hotel. The hotels are also relatively close to campus.
JL: Other then your rivalry with Kentucky, what team have you most enjoyed playing in your NCDA career and why?
NJ: That is a hard question because I just love playing the game and playing everyone, but if I had to limit it down I would say Ohio State. Every game we have ever played against them has been a good hard fought game. In the regular season we haven’t been able to beat them, but since I have been playing they haven’t beaten us at Nationals. Every time we play there is no telling who is going to win, but that it will be a great game. I have also enjoyed playing any Michigan school, each for their own reasons. DePaul for sure though because no matter what you have fun playing them and I respect them as a program for that. No matter what, DePaul will be DePaul and no one can change that.
JL: Are there any teams other then your own that have stuck out to you so far this season?
NJ: I would have to say Michigan State (MSU) and Central Michigan (CMU). I played them both at the CMU invite, and by keeping up with their records they are playing differently than they have in the past. Both schools are playing way more games than they traditionally do especially considering how early in the season it is. CMU has struggled with numbers the last 2 years, but this year they are traveling and winning games at tournaments. They have more power than they use to, but have not strayed away from what they do best and that is catching. MSU has stuck out most to me though because the style they play is not only good, but great for the Nationals setting. As a team they do not excel at just one thing over the other Michigan schools. But what I think makes them dangerous is that they capitalize on an opponent’s mistakes, when I played them at CMU, if we gave them too many balls they made us pay, if we solo throwed they made us pay. That is also why they and Grand Valley (GVSU) are the only two teams that have made it to the Final Four the last two years. But a team I want to see in person is James Madison (JMU). I feel like this year is a year they can maybe take that next step. Nationals 2014 we had to play them Day 1 and Day 2 and they looked good, but you could still see the inexperience with this being their 4th year in the league. Will they solve the Nationals Day 2 puzzle like MSU has or will they still not be able to get over that step and beat GVSU on the big stage? But this year I feel like the title is up for grabs because GVSU is still great but all the other schools are getting better, so I honestly can’t wait to see how the rest of the year turns out.
Nick looks to lead his team to victory this weekend at the MSU Invite, where they will take on MSU, CMU, GVSU and Depaul. Best of luck Nick and once again congratulations on being October’s Baller of the Month!