Jared Jensen wouldn't ever tell you this, but he's good. Real good.
No, he won't tell you anything. He'll just back you under the basket like a bull and then lay the ball in the basket with his soft hands. A rare combination of brute strength and finesse for a 6-9, 245-pound freshman.
"He's going to be one of the best post players BYU has had in 10 years," says senior point guard Matt Montague. But Jensen is already contributing. He is the third-leading scorer on the team in conference play and provides the Cougars with a legitimate defensive post presence. If Jensen's early success comes as a surprise to others, he says it's about what he expected. But then again, he's used to growing up fast - he was 6-7 by the time he was in ninth grade.
Jensen decided early on that basketball was his game. He was given a basketball hoop as a birthday present when he was five and a slab of cement for a court soon followed. Soccer and T-ball fell by the wayside as Jensen's basketball itch grew. He started playing Jr. Jazz ball in the third grade, already taller and stronger than the other kids his age.
When he reached the sixth grade, Jensen started traveling with an AAU squad coached by Dave Osborn. Jensen played with the team for three years and credits Osborn for giving him his first real exposure to the game.
Halfway through his ninth grade year Jensen made the jump from the junior high team to varsity. As mentioned, he was already 6-7. That was also about the time he started playing for Dave Hammer's Salt Lake Metro, a traveling team that took him from Las Vegas to Indiana and California.
"I don't know how many Easters we spent down in Las Vegas for tournaments," his mother Ruth Jensen says. And travel they did, taking Jensen from their home near Ogden to Salt Lake City for practices and games and making long road trips to watch him play. Jensen counts his parents as his greatest supporters and the most influential people in his life.
"They never let me quit anything," Jensen recalls. "My dad wanted to go to all the practices but the coach wouldn't let him. He wants to see me do well. He never really had the chance to play ball."
"It was quite a chore to get him down there for practices," Ruth remembers. "There were times when he didn't want to go. He was just tired of traveling and his friends were here, yet he was playing basketball down in Salt Lake."
But all the sacrifice and hard work began to pay off. Jensen started three and a half years on the varsity team at Fremont High School in Plain City, drawing the attention of college coaches and the media. As always, Jensen let his play on the court do the talking.
"He's always been that way," Ruth says. "He's just really quiet, he'll do anything not to draw attention to himself. He doesn't want to be in the spotlight."
But the spotlight would only get more intense. Jensen's talents earned him the Ogden Standard Examiner All-Area award three years running. As a junior averaging 17 points and 10 rebounds per game, he was named to both the Salt Lake Tribune and Deseret News All-State teams. His senior year brought even more success.
Jensen poured in nearly 26 points per game and averaged 13 boards his senior season as he led his team to the state 4A semifinals before losing to Olympus. The awards kept coming. Jensen earned the 2001 Deseret News Mr. Basketball Award his senior year. His 3.996 GPA (one A- in a math class his sophomore year, his mom will tell you) earned him an academic all-state award and highest honors from his high school. And the spotlight grew.
Coaches were calling. Stanford, Utah and Weber State came knocking, but Jensen had already made up his mind. He committed to BYU before his senior season had even begun.
"It was the place that fit me best," Jensen says. "The atmosphere, the players, the coaches - I just felt comfortable here."
BYU head coach Steve Cleveland didn't have to do too much convincing.
"He kind of gave me a basic outline when he came to my house. I liked what I saw," Jensen remembers.
So did Cleveland. He has had to deal with the lack of a true center since his arrival at BYU in 1997.
"He gives us a post presence. I think he's exceeded our expectations," Cleveland says. "Jared gets better every practice. He works very hard."
Signing with BYU meant pickup games and weightlifting the summer after his senior year as he prepared to play for a team that needed him. The Cougars lost center Mekeli Wesley, the 2001 Mountain West Conference Player of the Year, who graduated after bringing the Cougars their first conference title in eight years and a trip to the NCAA tournament.
Big shoes to fill, but Jensen is a big boy. And he is a truer center than Wesley, who liked to step out and shoot three-pointers just as much as play with his back to the basket.
"Since I've been here we really haven't had a true five man," says Montague. "[Jensen] is just a physical presence inside. You need someone to be able to bang inside and that's what he does really well."
While Jensen says the transition has been about what he expected, he also admits the play is quicker and the players stronger.
"It's been tough and a good challenge," he says. "The mental [aspect] has been the toughest, I have to be thinking all the time." This from someone who got one A- in high school.
"You have to be on your toes every second," he continues. "In high school you're pretty much playing just for fun. There's a little bit of preparation, but not like here."
Jensen appears to have prepared well. His conference play has been especially impressive as he leads his team and the Mountain West Conference in field goal percentage, hitting 61.5 percent of his shots. His 11.7 points-per-game average during conference play is good for third-best on the team behind Mark Bigelow and Travis Hansen. He had a career high 20 points at the Air Force Academy, what he calls his best game though he is slow to admit it because BYU lost.
"It felt really good to get in a flow, just play with your teammates. It reminded me of high school, despite the loss," Jensen says. But he is quick to downplay any suggestions that he is taking on a larger scoring role.
"It just sort of happened, I was ready," says Jensen. "I'm there when they need me. It's not like a conscious effort to score when those guys aren't. I'm out there to do my best, just contribute any way possible."
And contribute he has, but in his characteristically quiet, determined manner.
"I don't think I've ever heard him say more than five words in practice," says Cleveland. "Post players who have a good balance in personality have an advantage because they're not so up and down."
"He's not super vocal, he just gets along with everyone," adds Montague. "He's one of the guys you can't really get mad at."
Jensen says he does not want to be a robot, but he wants to stay in control, be tough and prove he can play by what he does on the court.
"We're very proud of him," Ruth says. "For a freshman, I guess we never quiet expected him to be this far along. And that's part of his determination - when he sets out to do something, he does it."
Coach Cleveland has been pleasantly surprised as well. Cleveland says Jensen is quicker to the ball and has more quickness than when he first arrived. His teammates agree.
"As Coach Cleveland told him the other day, he's not a freshman anymore," Montague says. "And he's not, he's one of the best post players in the league. And as a point guard, I have complete confidence to throw him the ball in the post. He has the best hands on the team, and when he gets it in there he usually finishes."
Jensen's future looks just as bright. Against Wyoming at the Marriott Center on Feb. 2, Jensen showed signs of a solid jump shot, hitting a couple of 12-footers and finishing with 10 points and two blocked shots before fouling out. He went toe-to-toe with the Cowboys' Uche Nsonwu-Amadi, a 6-10, 260-pound center made of rock-solid muscle.
Still, Jensen is not left without challenges. His dad, Arnold, is having health problems. Heart attacks damaged his heart and required two open-heart surgeries along with a battery of tests. He took an early medical retirement, but Ruth continues to work at Hill Air Force Base.
The Jensens are waiting for their doctors in the heart failure clinic at LDS Hospital to tell Arnold whether or not he will need more medication, a pace maker or a heart transplant. But Jensen doesn't say too much.
"I'm not even sure if the coaches know because that's just the way he is," Ruth says. "I know that it's weighing heavily on Jared's mind because he and his Dad are so close."
Arnold and Ruth continue to attend every home game in support of their son despite Arnold's health problems. Jensen says he is happy his parents can still watch him play. It might just do his Dad's heart some good.
Off the court, Jensen, who is LDS, is still debating whether or not he will serve a mission for his Church.
"I haven't really decided right now," Jensen says. "I don't know if I'll go right away." Jensen is concerned with his Dad's health and his Mother says Jared has told them, "I think I'm on a mission with my Dad."
Jensen says he would also like to play in the NBA someday, but he is taking things one step at a time.
"I just play," he says. "I don't get wrapped up too much in goals." That's right. Jensen won't take the time to tell you what he's going to do. He'll just do it. And so far, he's doing it better than anyone around here has seen in a long time.
Freshmen Playing for the Varsity
Jared Jensen is a talented freshman, but there was a time when froshies weren't allowed to play with the varsity.
"In 1973, freshmen became eligible to compete on the varsity level. Before that freshmen could play until the 1957 season, when they became ineligible," according to the NCAA record book.
UCLA's seven consecutive NCAA title run might have been 10 in a row had 7-2 Lew Alcindor (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) been allowed to play as a freshman in 1966. Bruin Coach John Wooden said the only team his 1966 defending champion team couldn't beat was his freshman team led by Alcindor.
Closer to home, Cougar Hall of Famer Kresimir Cosic starred on BYU's freshman team, making fans salivate when he moved up to the varsity in 1970. There were great freshmen games prior to BYU's varsity contests in the 1960s against future All-Americans Billy McGill of Utah and Wayne Estes of Utah State.
Since freshmen became eligible again, there have been unique combinations like Michigan's Fab Five or Arizona's Kiddie Korps, but usually it is a single freshman who elevates his team. Shaquille O'Neal or even former 7-6 Cougar Shawn Bradley were coveted bluechippers.
Jensen has started every game this season except the season opener at the University of San Diego.
While Jensen may not be a franchise player, he is an anchor to build around in future seasons. He joins elite company at BYU as listed below with past BYU freshmen.
Player, Freshman Year Games Started/Played
Shawn Bradley, 1990-1991 34/34
Kenneth Roberts, 1990-1991 34/34
Randy Reid, 1992-1993 33/34
Danny Ainge, 1977-1978 30/30
Mekeli Wesley, 1997-1998 29/30
Devin Durrant, 1978-1979 27/28
Mark Bigelow, 1998-1999 27/28
Fred Roberts, 1978-1979 27/28
Mark Handy, 1973-1974 26/26
Matt Montague, 1996-1997 26/26
Michael Smith, 1984-1985 25/31
Michael Vranes, 1998-1999 25/28
Scott Sinek, 1981-1982 22/30
Jared Jensen, 2001-2002 19/20
Steve Craig, 1975-1976 18/26
Eric Nielsen, 1996-1997 18/26
Mark Durrant, 1989-1990 17/30