Mike Jensen's dislocated shoulder has been just about the only negative news out of Husky hoops for the last six months. Offensive catalyst Brandon Roy decided to remain in purple and forgo the NBA draft. The 2005 recruiting class, ranked in the top 5, has arrived and is starting to bloom on Montlake. And next year's class already boasts four players from the RivalsHoops top 102, including this week's announcement of Spencer Hawes, who many feel is the most polished, multi-skilled center in the country. Even losing their "fourth" player, Martell Webster, to the NBA had a positive ring when the Husky recruit was the first high school player drafted.
So Jensen's need for the second surgery on his left labrum was a dose of reality for the program on the rise. The loss of the three-year starter was a blow to the Huskies' frontcourt size, projected to be a strong suit, now the team's biggest question mark. As the women's team practiced at Bank of America Arena, I asked Jensen about the state of his shoulder, the frontcourt freshmen, and his outlook for a team in transition.
During the Sept 30th operation, two free-floating tacks from the original 2001 surgery were removed along with some old scar tissue. New anchors were attached after the front of the bone was roughed up to stimulate the healing process and improve adhesion of the labrum. "The doctor said it went really well, and he's confident when I'm done with this (rehab) it will be like a new shoulder," reported the senior post man. The first positive sign is the range of motion he has only three weeks after injuring it while coming down with a rebound.
The challenge of rehabilitation will be to increase the shoulder's flexibility with his arm behind his torso and above his head, with weight training to follow in roughly four weeks. "I'm hoping to come back for Lehigh (December 23), but you never know with an injury what's going to happen. If everything goes well, they project me for Arizona State (December 29)." Washington's tallest returning starter would prefer to game-test his left wing during the last non-conference contest, before Pac-10 play starts the following week.
At 6-foot-8, Jensen has had the unenviable task of stopping NBA-bound centers like Ike Diogu (Arizona State) and Channing Frye (Arizona) for the undersized Huskies. With this summer's lifting and conditioning, he had bulked up to nearly 260 before the on-court collision. "I went up (to Queen Anne) with Ryan Appleby and worked out at Emerald City Basketball Academy with Jasen Baskett," on most days. Jensen has refined his game there since the 9th grade, and when his shoulder improves, he'll likely put in a morning training session with Baskett before heading back for UW practice.
"Me and Bobby (Jones) worked out together, him working on his dribbling stuff, and us both working on our shot. We were really serious about having a really good senior year, I think we all are," Jensen said of his classmates, Roy, Jones, and the 6-foot-6 Jamaal Williams.
"Personally I want to go out with a bang. So I worked really hard and this sucks," shrugging his bad (non-shooting) shoulder. "Now it's kind of like I have to gain all that back." But Jensen emphasized with conviction, "I worked hard enough that I know what I need to do."
With the departure of Hakeem Rollins, Jensen was the only returning big man with significant minutes from last year's Sweet 16 team. While expending most of his energies fronting the post on defense, Jensen scored in double figures eight times last year, averaging 20.6 minutes, 6.3 points, and 4.1 rebounds.
His absence will force the frosh trio of Jon Brockman, Artem Wallace and Joe Wolfinger, into the fray. "We were blessed to get a very good group of freshman," Jensen said complimenting their talent, dedication, and pursuit of advice, without ego or entitlement. "They came in and basically knew they were freshman and they were going to have to learn, and were like, 'I want to learn.' So my impression of them immediately was, "We're going to be really really good, because they really want help us be good. I think that they're going to do great."
"Jon's obviously a little bit further along than Artem and Joe," Jensen said of one of the best frontline recruiting classes in school history. "But Artem and Joe are both very talented. Artem's a big time athlete and Joe's really tall, long. He's got a good touch on his shot. I think those guys are going to be able to hold it down, and then as soon as I come back, it will just give us that much more strength."
With the three-guard attack of Will Conroy, Nate Robinson, and Tre Simmons working in NBA camps this fall, the 4 and 5 spots on the blocks are now open too. "Jamaal is going to have to step up and be a starter. 'Maal shows you that he can score 25 points, or he can just be quiet." Jensen is confident in more performances like Williams' 18-point effort off the bench versus Louisville, "if 'Maal just steps up and takes that role like, 'I'm going to be a starter and show the young boys what's going on here.' I think 'Maal and Brockman are going to have to pick up a huge amount of the slack. 'Maal was already going to be a huge part of what we we're trying to do because he can score the ball so well in the post. Brockman's going to be thrown into the wild right now because he's just going to have come in there and be that guy that guards the seven-footers, learns our defensive scheme within three months, and then we start going. So he's got a lot on his shoulders—him and Joe and Artem. Artem and Joe are following suit, doing everything right. But I think the main two I would look to really step up and contribute right away would be Jamaal and Jon."
The offensive spark, especially early, will come from the only two returning players that logged more minutes than Jensen last year. "I think you're going to see Brandon Roy and Bobby Jones, and what they're really capable of. I think Brandon, especially. People are going to see the type of amazing player that he is, that you saw in Alaska before he got hurt. I don't think that there's any single person, maybe in the nation, that can guard him one-on-one. He's added shooting to his game and now it's basically impossible to guard him. He can post-up, dribble drive, and get to the hoop." With his knee stronger, Jensen added, "He can definitely jump and shoot now. So I think that you're going to see a lot of the leadership go towards Brandon and a lot of the scoring. He's going to have to pick it up a little bit, maybe average 18 to 20 a game."
Jones has averaged more than 11 points the last two seasons, like Roy, with a high last season of 22. "Bobby always gets his things throughout the course of the game, but I think you can look for him to step it up and take more shoots and maybe push the issue a little bit." With Jensen's return and Jamaal's emergence, "We'll be confident. We'll know that we're seniors and when we need a basket, we'll know where we can go."
Prior to Jensen's second dislocation the only real question was at point guard, where the starter will be transfer Ryan Appleby, the runner-up for the 2003 Mr. Basketball for the state of Washington his senior year at Stanwood. "People haven't really seen Appleby yet. But last year, he gave Nate and Will terrors some days in practice. They would throw fits, they would be so mad, because he can shoot it so good. He's just a fierce competitor and he's really fast. I don't think that people should underestimate him either. He's going to do a lot of good for us."
Appleby will share the role with 5-foot-11 freshman Justin Dentmon, who chose Washington over Illinois, Connecticut, and Georgia Tech. "Justin is kind of like a little Nate, minus the HUGE athletic ability. He's short, he can shoot, and he can jump a little bit. He's just a real solid point guard. I think the main thing that he would have to work on at all is just looking up and seeing things. As soon as he adapts (to the faster college game), he's going to get a good share of minutes."
What is Jensen's reaction to the team receiving a No. 1 seed and the national recruiting spotlight? "It's a great moment in my life. That's what I dreamed of when I came here. When coach Bender first recruited me, he's like, 'One of these days we're going to have all the great players that play in Washington, they're going to start something at this university.' I committed on the very day he told me that, because I was like, 'I want to be part of that!"
"I've been here when we were 9-22," Jensen recalled of his redshirt season of 2001-02. "It was terrible, there's nobody in the seats. And then we fought, we fought—we still had all the same talent, a couple things here and there went the right way—and then it was just like, Bam, we clicked all of the sudden and now we're on the map. It's pretty much like a dream come true. I've been excited to see what we worked so hard for finally develop."
What does he think of the emergence of so many local prep players, and the fact that many of them are committing to the Huskies? "Washington is there, it's on the map, we've got some really good players that are coming out and proving themselves not only on the college level, but making it to the pros. So I think it's a great thing for (University of) Washington and Washington basketball."
As a fifth-year senior, Jensen has a unique perspective on the program. I asked him to contrast his two coaches, Bob Bender and Lorenzo Romar. "Romar is a much more hands-on type of person. When you have morning workouts at 6, he's there before you get there," with a smile and a handshake, "but once you step in between the lines he's very serious. In the off-hours you can go hang out in his office, watch film with him. He's going to joke around, kid with you." But when it's time to work, Jensen continued, "He's that serious coach that you need, telling you the truth. Bender was probably one of the nicest people I've ever met; just a great guy and a great speaker. He could talk to anybody about anything. Romar is just more so of that college head coach type that you need to put you in your place every once and awhile. Bender, who is now in the pros, which is where he belongs—where you have grown men who know what they're suppose to be doing."
What are Jensen's early impressions of Paul Fortier, in his first official season as a Husky assistant coach? "He was actually here two years ago as a volunteer. He would work out with us and play in the post drills with us. He's strong," commented Jensen, noting that Fortier has passed along some of the techniques he picked up in the European leagues. "I like coach Fortier. I think he's going to help the bigs out a lot this year with his knowledge of basketball and his dedication to the University of Washington (he played from 1983-86). He worked basically for free with us for a whole year, he was here for everything. That shows a lot."
How has the crowd and atmosphere changed in his five years? "That's been my favorite part of everything going on here at the University. When I first came here, I came to the football games, and the (stadium) was just roaring, just ridiculous. I remember we beat Miami here and it was crazy." Watching from the bench while he recovered from the first surgery, "(Hec Ed) was empty, we're having a tough time, and I thought, 'Man, this is a football school.' Back then you could walk around Seattle and no one would know the difference."
"Now it's really flattering," Jensen said of the thousands who sold-out B of A for every Pac-10 game last season. "I've had a kid come up to me in the mall and ask for my autograph, my face will turn beet red. I don't even know how to react to it, their parents are right there offering congratulations. To have someone pulling for you and appreciating what you do, it's an amazing feeling."
Has that surge of energy contributed to the 22-game home winning streak? "Definitely. I think that a lot of what people do is based on the confidence they have in themselves and the stuff around them, the people they have backing them. Sometimes you're only as strong as your best friend, and what you can do for them, and what they can do for you."
The Huskies play 14 of their first 15 games at Bank of America Arena, how will that impact the incoming players? "We've got some of the greatest fans I think in the nation that come out, every game they're here, every game they're loud, every game they're on their feet. So I think that's a huge advantage to us, especially with the amount of freshmen that we have and the roles that they're going to have to assume right away. That's the main advantage, get a little bit of a confidence boost, 'I can do this, now let's go on the road.'"
Will the stretch at home leave the freshman unprepared when they face their first hostile crowd at Pauley Pavilion on January 12? "UCLA is a tough place to play anytime. It will be different for our young guys. They're the only team that we haven't beaten at their house in the four years I've been there. It's going to be packed and they're going to be yelling at them. But I think we've got a lot of composure in the freshman class, and they're going to do alright, they might even feed off of it."
Who does Jensen see as the biggest challengers for the Pac-10 title? "I think for sure you've got to look at Stanford, returning Chris Hernandez and Matt Haryasz; Oregon, with their group of freshmen that they had last year, they're going to be tough; UCLA, they got in some in some really good freshmen this year, plus last year's (class); Cal could be good with their freshman and with Leon Powe coming back if he's healthy; and maybe Arizona, you can never count out old Lute (Olson)."
What will be the signature of this Husky squad? "I think it's going to be defense. We're going to be there for 40 minutes, constantly pressuring, constantly crashing the boards, diving on the floor, running after loose balls, being physical. I think that's going to be the identity of our team, that intensity."
"I think the offense is going to be more balanced this year," said Jensen, who finished third on the team in rebounding. "Last year we had three of the best guards in the Pac-10 if not all over the nation, two of them led in assists, one of them an amazing three-point shooter. You can't really argue with what works. This year we've got some good low guys, guys that can get it done inside and outside."
"Coach already told me he wanted me to score more this year and take more shots when I'm open. And then my role's going to be, whoever the other big guy is, trying to keep him from getting the ball when we play the Leon Powe's—we don't have the Channing Frye's or the Ike Diogu's anymore—try to slow them down, keep them from touching the ball as much as possible. I think that will be my role again: to rebound, hustle, make good passes, be a utility guy, and when the baskets come my way, make sure I make them."
Jensen, who nearly doubled his offensive rebound total from his sophomore season, practiced his multiple-dribble post moves this summer. "I was working on a lot of turn-and-face moves because a lot of times I'm quicker than the guy that's guarding me. So I worked on a lot of stuff with me facing the basket so my shooting comes into play," Jensen described, along with the show-and-go.
The center-by-necessity commented on the value of the summer pick-up games, which often included Jamal Crawford, Nate, Will, and Tre. "It makes our team even better. Last summer we had a lot of the Sonics (Rashard Lewis, Nick Collison, Reggie Evans) down here, but they didn't come play with us this summer," adding with a laugh, "I think they were nervous. No, I'm just kidding."
Jensen, whose performance in the victory over Stanford on January 2 (17 points, 7 rebounds, 4 steals, and 2 blocks) helped set the tone for year, wasn't joking when I asked him the long-term benefit of advancing through the Pac-10 tourney and onto the Sweet 16. "Knowing how to win. Some teams can get close and be in the game, but when it's really time that last two minutes and you're within 2-4 points, who's going to be the team that gets the defensive stop, that secures the rebound, that makes the shot they need to. I think that it's all confidence."
The sociology major spoke with pride when reflecting on his class and the evolution of the program. "I think our class is going to leave on a very good note, leaving a legacy, basically, from bad to good. It's the starting point of a dynasty. That was my thing: we want to create a dynasty here where UDub is like Duke. When you have a Pac-10/ACC match-up that it's not UCLA versus Duke, it's Duke versus Washington, and that's the game you want to watch. As soon as we're gone, they're only going to go up. Coach (Romar) has dreams of being here until he retires, and I think he's the perfect guy for the job. He bleeds purple and gold, loves the Huskies, loves Washington, and when you love something it's going to rise in value."