Seattle Supersonic ticket holders will tell you that their courtside seats put them in the middle of the action. Washington's Mike Jensen will tell you otherwise. The three-year starter has been forced to watch the Huskies' first nine games from the front row, within arms reach of the competition with a shoulder that wouldn't let him reach it. But with 12 weeks of rehab behind him, Jensen's surgically-repaired shoulder will finally allow him to climb aboard the Husky Express that is rolling past opponents and milestones.
"Every once in a while I just wanted to jump out there. I felt like I could play, so it's hard not to," said the senior forward who averaged 22.5 minutes while starting 87 of 93 games prior to this season.
The view from the bench has been more palatable this season in comparison to 2001-2002 when he was forced to redshirt after dislocating his left shoulder for the first time. Washington lost seven of its first eight conference games that season and limped to an 11-18 record. Now the No. 9 Huskies are the toast of the West Coast.
"I think the thing I miss the most is being out there with my team. It's so fun playing here at this Bank of America Arena and I've been playing here a long time. Just to see the crowds grow and grow, and now we've got tents (with overnight campers waiting in line)," said Jensen. "I've really missed the atmosphere of college basketball. I'm there, but it's different when you're not out there on the court. It will be good to get back out there and be in the mix."
Coach Lorenzo Romar noted that the fifth-year Husky forward has been anxiously tugging on the reigns. "He's responded extremely well and our trainers and doctors have done a fantastic job of making sure he didn't come back too early."
A 9-0 start doesn't exactly cause you to look for silver linings, but there was a blessing in Jensen's absence. Jamaal Williams, a reserve last season, has been given plenty of court time and has emerged as a go-to guy, leading the team in field goals (67-of-119). Freshman Jon Brockman, an always-on-the-go guy, has seen extensive minutes, gaining confidence with three double-doubles. Junior Hans Gasser has proven himself as a capable, 6-foot-9 back-up, and freshman Artem Wallace received some much-needed exposure after playing at the single-A level in high school.
Last season Jensen ended up battling on the blocks more than previous campaigns, and while his offensive rebounding numbers improved significantly, his shooting touch seemed to suffer. As a junior, his 3-point percentage dropped from 41 percent as a sophomore to 30 percent, and his overall shooting dipped as well. The Kentwood graduate took advantage of the no-contact portion of his rehabilitation to refine his skills.
"I got to work on my shooting a lot so that is probably stronger then it's ever been. For awhile I couldn't run and jump, all I could work on was form shooting, so I did a lot of that. Once I could move around more, I got a little bit better at putting it on the floor one or two times either way and being able to shoot it," Jensen said. "Probably the thing that will come last is all the physical stuff like posting up because I haven't been able to have a lot of contact. I've been able to make post moves, but just not with someone hitting me on the way up. That's coming back pretty quick as the days go on."
Jensen, whose hair is cut as short as the trees that used to line the sidewalk in front of Husky Stadium, isn't the only one excited about his return. "This summer he was great backing up and posting, and then he messed his shoulder up and he couldn't bang no more," Brandon Roy said Wednesday. "And now in practice he stretches the defense out. He was knocking down so many threes today, we were like, 'Dang!'"
Bobby Jones, the second-most experienced Husky with 73 starts under his belt, was quick to second the emotion. "He brings outside shooting, he drags the big man (to the perimeter). If they want to come out, he can go around them. If they don't, then he is one of the best spot-up shooter that we have on our team. He's just an extra big body and he can play great interior defense," said Jones, still slightly gimpy with internal swelling in his ankle. "He just adds to our depth now. With him, Hans, Jamaal and Brockman, we have four legit bigs now. So whoever's in foul trouble, it won't hurt us because somebody can easily step in and continue the rhythm that we have. We need Mike, man. We've had him the last three years and he's been starting since I don't know when. We need his presence and intensity."
With Jones expected to see limited action versus Lehigh Friday, Jensen's timing couldn't be better. Romar will have the luxury of experimenting with less conventional combinations, possibly introducing a rotation of Brockman, Jensen and Williams. While not the tallest lineup in the Pac-10, that frontline could force teams to bring their hard hats. Brockman is leading the team with 7.9 rebounds per game, with Williams second with 5.6.
I asked Jensen, who averaged 6.3 points and 4.1 rebounds last season on a squad of perimeter scorers, which combinations he's sees the team using once he's closer to full speed. Will Jensen, the star forward in Bob Bender's last recruiting class, spell Brockman, last year's Best in the West selection? Or will Jensen relieve Williams, the productive transfer from New Mexico?
"It just depends on which group is playing well. Coach (Romar) isn't one of those guys who have a set plan, it's basically which match-ups are (advantageous), who's playing well, who's scoring well, who's playing defense well. It all depends on the flow of the game. He's a players coach," said the 6-foot-8 Jensen. "How he'll coach is based on how you're playing. It's all up to you in this system."
Jensen is confident in his conditioning so far, but is curious how his braced, non-shooting shoulder will respond to rebounding battles. "Oh yeah, I could play 12-15 minutes versus Lehigh. It's totally up to the coaches, their discretion and how they want to use me. They'll probably go a little slower at first. As soon as we get into those games where you need experience and you need a big body, I'll be there and I'll be able to go."
His strengthened shoulder further strengthens the Huskies' solid play at forward, an unresolved area at the outset of the non-conference schedule. "As a head coach I have never been with a team that has, collectively, the inside group that we have now. With Mike coming back—Hans Gasser in there—I feel really good about our inside guys," said Romar. "It's the most aggressive inside group that we've had and hopefully that will translate into success."
"Maybe the one thing that we don't have right now is one of our big guys who can hit (from 18 feet or beyond)," Jensen opined. "Now you have Jon and 'Maal who are strictly post guys down there and really get the job done for us. When I come back I think it will help us a lot. I'll be able to stretch the defense, open it up a little more for our guards because people won't be able to sag into the paint. I think it might make our offense tick a little bit better, but it all depends on how it goes. We've got a lot of different weapons we can throw at people."
Roy thinks Jensen's benefit won't just be measured by his own statistics. "When Mike comes in is on plays where I penetrate and he spaces," said the leading scorer. "Coach came to me and said, 'You know what the difference is this year? Sometimes when you post up, the big helps out because he's backing off Jon and Jamaal's three-point shot.' But when Mike was playing and he throws it in (to the post), the big has to stay out on him. Mike gives us great space I think offensively, and then defensively, he's guarded Channing Frye, Ike Diogu—all these great guys who are pros now."
If Jensen can make teams pay on the kick-out, the ball dropping through the net will be music to the slashers' ears. "His back-to-the-basket game is fine, but his ability to keep 6-10 guys out there guarding him is going to open up the paint when it's time for me to drive, or even Justin Dentmon—he's a big-time driver," Roy added. "If you can pull those 6-10 guys, those Leon Powe types, those shot-blockers, then it really opens up our game."
When the occasionally white-haired Jensen begins to challenge for starter's minutes, the Huskies will have the enviable problem of finding time for everyone. Gasser was rewarded for his strong showing at the Wooden Classic with 21 minutes last week versus Eastern Washington.
"You've got to give Hans all the credit in the world because he's worked hard," said Romar, praising his improved strength and post defense. "I told Hans after New Mexico, 'You helped us win that game. And it feels good to tell you that.' I would not have thought going into the year that Hans was going to be in that position, but to his credit he's made a case for himself.
"Offensively, he's a great screen-setter to get other guys open," Romar said last week. "Hans really understands spacing and how to get open and give the ball some room. He's good at getting himself in the right spot to knock a shot down that he knows he's capable of hitting."
Roy wasn't hesitant to praise the unMasked Marvel and his lunch-pail work ethic. "Jon Brockman, he's scoring and it doesn't matter if you give him the ball. He's finding ways, he's fast-breaking, and he's getting rebounds and put-backs. It will be tough for teams to stop all of us."
Like being blessed with a bagful of Christmas presents, the Huskies are now gifted with some tangible experience and the return of a hard-working starter. Roy, a willing spokesman for the team, commented on how the pieces are falling into place just in time for the Pac-10 schedule, which begins with next week's visits from Arizona State and Arizona.
"When it's time to go on the road again, it's going to be Mike Jensen, a fifth-year; Jamaal Williams, a fifth-year; Brandon Roy, a senior; Bobby Jones, a senior. It doesn't look so much like it's all these freshmen going on the road because we'll be there to help them through those tough times," said Roy.
"(Jensen's) practicing like he's never been out. He's going at 100 percent. I said, 'Coach, he could play 20-25 minutes Friday.'"
And like St. Nicholas in "'Twas the Night Before Christmas," a parting Roy exclaimed, "The Pac-10, they better be ready for some full force because Mike Jensen is ready."