For this week’s edition of “Conversations with Clayton,” I interviewed A.J. Kanell, the play-by-play announcer for Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference (MAAC) basketball power Siena. Kanell broadcasts the Siena Saints games on Albany, New York’s WGDJ Talk 1300 AM. A 2013 graduate of Syracuse’s prestigious Newhouse School of Public Communications, Kanell served previously as the play-by-play man for the University of Vermont Catamounts men’s basketball team while co-hosting an afternoon sports talk show on Burlington, Vermont’s ESPN Radio affiliate, 101.3 FM. AJ and I discuss the state of mid-major college basketball, breaking into the sports media business and Mario Kart.
Clayton Trutor (CT): How did you break into the sports media business?
A.J. Kanell (AJK): I got my start in student radio at Syracuse University, before graduating in 2013. The most valuable aspect of my experience at 'Cuse was engaging in healthy competition for reps with other enthusiastic young yappers. Once I worked my way up the ladder, I spent two years calling Orange basketball, football and lacrosse games. My senior year, I broadcast Syracuse football's win over Geno Smith and West Virginia in the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium, Syracuse basketball's season opener aboard the USS Midway in San Diego, games in the final original Big East Tournament and SU's run to the Final Four in Atlanta. It was hard, if not impossible, to fully appreciate having those opportunities at such a young age.
CT: What do you find most challenging about doing play-by-play?
AJK: It depends on the sport. Each sport has its own unique challenges, whether you're attempting to stay on top of the play during a helter-skelter hoops game, or find a rhythm and provide entertaining context during a slower baseball game. As a young announcer, I am most concerned right now with honing a unique vocal delivery.
CT: What advice would you give people interested in breaking into the sports media?
AJK: Be genuine. Know your strengths, and know your weaknesses. Versatility is important, but it's more important to identify what you do best and get really good at it.
CT: You have covered two significant mid-major pro programs during your career (Vermont and Siena). Do you think top-notch mid-major programs are more or less competitive against elite competition than they were 10 years ago?
AJK: For programs like Vermont and Siena, I don't think circumstances have changed much. As has been the case for a while, major conference schools simply will not consider going on the road against mid-majors in non-conference play. That always plagues smaller schools looking for NCAA Tourney resume-building wins. Even when mid-major teams manage to build solid resumes, they don't always receive fair treatment from the selection committee.
Has the grad transfer rule led to more power conference poaching? Sure, but let's not forget it can work both ways. Iona nabbed grad transfers Sam Cassell Jr. (UConn) and Jon Severe (Fordham) from higher levels, and the duo helped lead the Gaels to their second straight MAAC title.
The upper middle class of college basketball feels stronger than it was 10 years ago. I enjoy looking at conference RPI rankings to gauge the college hoops landscape. In 2006-2007, the four non-Power Six conferences that finished top 10 in RPI were the MVC, Mountain West, WAC, and Horizon League. That group pales in comparison to its present day counterparts. Schools like Butler and Xavier are now having success in the new Big East. The American Athletic Conference is a rich person's 2000s Conference USA. The Atlantic 10 has gotten stronger. Gonzaga and Saint Mary's continue to grow their profiles in the WCC.
CT: How would you compare the fan bases at Vermont and Siena?
AJK: They're definitely similar. Both fan bases skew a bit older, and pack the seats at an impressive rate for small-conference basketball.
CT: Which mid-major programs do you see as being most capable of breaking out in 2017-2018?
AJK: How about a shout out to the schools entering their first year of full NCAA Division I Membership, finally postseason eligible after four long years on probation. I'll be very interested to see how UMass Lowell progresses under longtime Boston College assistant Pat Duquette. I have a feeling we'll be hearing sometime soon from Grand Canyon and Dan Majerle in the month of March.
CT: What's the outlook for the MAAC next season?
AJK: There's major upheaval in the MAAC. Monmouth graduates 5-foot-8 guard Justin Robinson, the back-to-back MAAC Player of the Year. Iona, with its constant stream of transfers, flips a large chunk of its roster each year. Siena and Saint Peter's each graduate several key seniors. In the next tier, Fairfield, Canisius and Quinnipiac (which fired its coach) have some really talented players leaving via transfer. The perennial powers have some rebuilding to do, but it's hard to say how much they'll be challenged by potential risers from the middle and bottom of the league.
CT: Describe your greatest video game victory of all time.
AJK: Probably when I won a race in Beerio Kart. Beerio Kart is Mario Kart, but you must finish an entire beer before finishing the race. Everyone who plays Beerio Kart has a slightly different strategy, and none of the strategies are usually too effective.
CT: Tell me three things people don't know about Burlington and three things people don't know about Albany.
- Burlington has natural fan rivalries in three of the four US major sports. Bruins vs Canadiens (with Burlington's proximity to Montreal), Patriots vs Giants (the Giants used to hold training camp in VT), Red Sox vs Yankees.
- Burlington Mayor Miro Weinberger plays on an adult baseball league team, often catching for former Red Sox and Expos pitcher Bill "Spaceman" Lee, who lives in Vermont.
- Just like Cincinnati (and oddly enough about 50 other American cities), Burlington is nicknamed the "Queen City."
- Novelist Kurt Vonnegut once worked at General Electric in nearby Schenectedy, NY, and he used the Capital Region as the setting in many of his books.
- George Karl used to coach the Albany Patroons of the now-defunct CBA.
- Albany was settled by the Dutch, a fact reflected in the nickname of several local sports teams ("The Dutchmen")
CT: When you think of Cincinnati, you think of _________
Follow A.J. Kanell on Twitter: @AJKanell
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