Jeff White, Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch
October 14, 2002 CHARLOTTESVILLE From his former teammates, Chicago Bulls rookie Roger Mason, Jr. has heard about Rod Jensen, Virginia's new assistant coach.
“They say the only language he knows is defense,” Mason said. “It's kind of funny: That could have helped us last year.”
Defense? In Pete Gillen's program at UVa?
That's no joke, though the Cavaliers' often-feeble attempts to stop opponents drew plenty of snickers around the ACC last season. In each of UVa's last seven games, its opponent shot at least 50 percent from the floor. Several teams positively torched Virginia during that stretch, including Wake Forest (57.9 percent), Maryland (61.5) and N.C. State (60.4).
The Wahoos, ranked No. 4 nationally in December, collapsed during the season's final six weeks, missed the NCAA Tournament and finished 17-12. Gillen's team had numerous problems, ranging from suspect chemistry to shaky perimeter play, but its biggest flaw might have been its abysmal defense.
That's why, after Gillen's top assistant, Tommy Herrion, left in the spring, Jensen emerged as such an attractive candidate. Defense is the foundation on which Jensen's coaching philosophy is built.
Good or bad, that is my reputation, Jensen said. My upbringing has been very strong-willed at the defensive end.
After 12 seasons as an assistant at Boise State, Jensen took over as head coach there in 1995. In 1998-89, the Broncos went 21-8 and were Big West Conference tournament runners-up. In 2001-02, though, Boise State moved up to the more prestigious Western Athletic Conference and finished 13-17.
In March, Boise State dismissed Jensen, whose record there was 109-93. The next month, Herrion took the head job at the College of Charleston, and suddenly Gillen had an opening on his staff. He considered filling it with someone from his circle of hoops acquaintances, but others among them Terry Holland, the former athletic director and basketball coach at UVa advised Gillen to look at another option.
They pointed out that at N.C. State, Herb Sendek's assistants include former Ohio coach Larry Hunter, who was instrumental in the Wolfpack's turnaround last season. At Connecticut, which lost to eventual national champion Maryland in last season's NCAA East Region final, Jim Calhoun's staff includes ex-Holy Cross coach George Blaney. Holland himself had hired Dave Odom as an assistant at UVa after Odom's stint as East Carolina's head coach.
It's important sometimes, Gillen acknowledged, to have someone who'll say, Hey, why not do it this way?
People I respect in our administration and people I respect in basketball said, ëPete, get a veteran guy who's not from your (coaching) family,' Gillen said.
Idaho is a long way from the South, but Jensen had ties to UVa. His daughter Kate graduated from the university in May, and Jon Oliver, Virginia's senior associate AD, played at Boise State when Jensen was an assistant there. After Herrion left, Oliver heard Gillen talk about his team's defensive woes.
In my mind, Oliver said, I kind of knew who the person was who could help him with that.
So Oliver mentioned Jensen to Gillen and UVa athletic director Craig Littlepage, a former head coach at Pennsylvania and Rutgers. They didn't know each other well, but Gillen researched Jensen's background and liked what he saw. Jensen, 48, was hired in July and started his new job in early August.
We lost a lot with Tommy Herrion, Gillen said. We lost a tremendous coach, and so we needed a tremendous coach to help fill the void, and we got it.
It may be a stretch to call Jensen the team's defensive coordinator, but not much of one.
One of his big things is trying to help our defense, Gillen said, particularly our halfcourt defense.
Mason is gone, along with four-year starters Chris Williams and Adam Hall, but UVa returns numerous players from 2001-02, including big men Travis Watson, Jason Clark and Elton Brown and guards Keith Jenifer and Jermaine Harper. Is it realistic to think these guys can suddenly become stingy on defense?
I think every group of guys you get together has the capability of being a good defensive team, Jensen said. You just have to have guys that are willing to do that. I'm a great believer that the leaders of your team have to play at both ends of the floor.
Jensen's teams didn't press fullcourt, a trademark of Gillen's clubs. Nor have Jensen's teams pushed the ball up the court the way Gillen's do. Some may wonder whether an up-tempo team can play superior halfcourt defense. Not Oliver.
For those who would say you can't do that, he said, I would remind them of (Jerry Tarkanian's Las) Vegas teams: a great combination of tremendous offense and unyielding defense. ... I think that will only complement what Pete likes to do offensively.
Jensen said: I'm not opposed to pushing the ball and being aggressive offensively. I just think you have to be aggressive at both ends of the floor.
In addition to hiring Jensen, Gillen reassigned his staff members this summer. Scott Shepherd, who'd been UVa's No. 3 assistant, became director of basketball operations. Alexis Sherard was promoted from that position to full-time assistant. Walt Fuller became Gillen's top assistant.
Sherard and Fuller, along with Gillen, will handle most of the recruiting duties. Jensen won't go out on the road. Gillen wants him to concentrate on teaching and coaching.
As a head coach, you need as much help as you can get, said Gillen, who has a 70-49 record but has yet to win a postseason game in four years at Virginia. The big thing is, he has experience. Rod can do a lot of things to help take pressure off me.
Jensen, who was born in Utah, grew up in Michigan and California. He graduated from the University of Redlands in 1975 and later began his college coaching career there. He spent the 1982-83 season at Penn State before moving back to the West.
Coach Gillen and I don't have a history of being at the same schools or on the same side of the country, Jensen said. I haven't even worked his camps. He's taking a chance, and I certainly appreciate the chance he's given me.