PULLMAN – Cougar fans who remember Pac-8 basketball in the 1970s are bound to perk up and perhaps even smile when they hear the name of one of the people who influenced the way Rod Jensen thinks about defense. Jensen, the newest member of coach Ken Bone’s Cougar staff, is the coordinator of what Bone says will be a new-look, high-pressure Cougar D this season.
As an assistant at Penn State in the early 1980s, Jensen came to appreciate the defensive teachings of one Dick Harter, whose earlier work at Oregon -- made famous by the tenacious, loose-ball-diving “Kamikaze Kids” -- turned heads on the West Coast from 1971-78.
“I’ve worked for some really good coaches over the years and I think it’s just a combination of taking a little bit from everybody I’ve worked with,” Jensen said of his defensive philosophy in an exclusive interview with Cougfan.com.
Besides Harter, there was Bobby Dye at Boise State and Gary Smith at the University of Redlands, among others.
One word describes the style of defense Jensen looks to implement at WSU: aggressive.
“We’re going to try and make it difficult for what you want to do,” he said. “[Our defense] is definitely one of team. It’s a system is one where everyone is involved, and everyone is responsible for one another.”
In comparing it with the “Pack-Line Defense” Cougar fans came to appreciate under Dick and Tony Bennett, Jensen said this season’s Cougs will make an effort to push the tempo, turning their defense into offense, through full- and three-quarter-court pressure.
“We’re going to try and get out and make things happen so we can create some opportunities in the open court for players we think are pretty good in the open court,” he said. “So if we can create a tempo, hurry up the (opposing) offense, force them into bad decisions, if it can cause some turnovers or some misses and give our guys the ability to get stops and attack in the open court, we think it’s a way for us to go to our strengths.”
If the past is prologue, Cougar fans should like what they see. During Jensen's time at Boise State, the team ranked in the top 15 nationally in scoring defense four times. And as an assistant at Virginia a decade ago, the Cavaliers twice led the ACC in defensive field goal percentage.
He defensive expertise has led to invitations to speak at clinics and meet with coaching staffs.
But he’s always on the lookout for ideas, too.
One of his most memorable experiences was a visit to San Antonio where he spent time observing the inner workings of the o San Antonio Spurs’ system.
“I was there spectating and visiting with Coach Popovich who was actually the coach of Pomona Pitzer when I was at the University of Redlands so we had that relationship there so it went way back,” he said.
“I probably enjoyed that as much as anything. Just their system, the way they do things. How every person they hired and every player they drafted was for a single purpose and that was the San Antonio way. I thought they just did a tremendous job of recruiting character people.”
The Spurs win championships and it’s well-known that defense is a critical part of what they do.
Jensen said his emphasis on defense started as a player when he realized scoring wasn’t the only way to have an impact on the game.
“When I knew I couldn’t shoot the ball very well and I wanted to play college basketball I figured out that if I defended, took care of the basketball, and got the basketball to people who could shoot it, it gave me a chance to play,” he said.
Jensen played at the University of Redlands in southern California.
“You look at any level of any sport, and I still really, really believe that defense wins championships. Our goal here is to win a championship, to get to the NCAA Tournament, so I believe we have to be good on the defensive side of the ball.”
In addition, he said, for the Cougars to have a shot at the NCAA Tournament they’ll need to make hay from downtown. Last season they averaged nearly 21 three-point attempts per game and connected on 34 percent of those shots.
“I think that’s a strength of ours, I just think we have good shooters,” said Jensen, who most recently was the head coach at College of Idaho.
“I think we have a couple guys who have an offensive presence on the inside and obviously we would want them to get the ball too as long as we’re taking good shots that they can make 50 percent of the time.
“We don’t care if it’s a short shot a long shot, just good open shots, you will be able to get back defensively.”
A downside to shooting three-balls is the long rebounds that misses create for the other team, often leading to easy offensive opportunities.
“It’s about how well we can sell to our players [how important] getting back and getting set is,” he said. “I don’t think just shooting the three will put us bad defensive situations all the time. I still think it’s a mindset of ‘hey, if you want to get back, we’ll get back’ and right now this team is showing me and us as a coaching staff that they want to get back.”
The entire team’s attitude toward what the staff is implementing has Jensen excited.
“From top to bottom I couldn’t be more impressed with the way guys have embraced what we’re trying to teach,” Jensen said. “Our senior leadership, our captains, when they show everyone else the importance of it then everybody will pick it up. I think that’s what you find on every great team is that your leaders know of the importance of competing on both ends of the floor and basically being on the same page.”
The Cougar men’s and women’s basketball teams will be holding the fifth-annual ZZUMania kickoff to the practice season this Friday in Bohler Gym at 8:30 p.m. Admission free.
The captains for the Cougars this season are senior Will DiIorio and juniors Royce Woolridge and Davonte Lacy.
The Cougars open the season Nov. 1 with an exhibition in Pullman against Central Washington. Tip off is at 8 p.m.
There will be no Seattle game at Key Arena for the Cougs this holiday season, but the team still will be playing two home games outside of Pullman. They’ll take on San Francisco State in Kennewick on Dec. 18 and Colorado on Jan. 8 in Spokane. The Cougs also will be in Spokane on Nov. 21 for a game at Gonzaga.