Big-time hoops season a whirlwind for Jesperson
When Merrill native and stud basketball player Paul Jesperson accepted the full-ride scholarship to the big time-the University of Virginia in the same Atlantic Coast Conference with legendary schools Duke and North Carolina-the original plan projected a redshirt year to get his bearings and build strength.
Fast forward several months from the start of the season to get a glimpse of the hectic unfolding of his first season.
No one would call a redshirt season at the major NCAA D1 level a walk in the park. Players are still allowed to practice with their teams, frequently simulating the upcoming opponent for regular members of the squad, and participate in the full travel routine. But they receive an extra year of eligibility for not stepping onto the floor in games.
That redshirt plan fell by the wayside due to an injury and the mid-term defection of a pair of players.
Suddenly, Jesperson was thrust into what could have been a difficult decision for a self-centered player. Or, you could say, thrust himself. Coach Tony Bennett-former UW-Green Bay stand-out and three-year NBA player for the Charlotte Hornets, as well as son of the extremely-capable Coach Dick Bennett-explained.
“When the two guys transferred, he sat down, thought about it, talked with his family, then asked to talk to me before practice,” Bennett said. “He said, ‘Coach, whatever is best for the program, I’m ready to do.’ It speaks volumes about who he is as a person.”
Bennett certainly appreciated the offer.
“He’s a real good guy and I think he would have been fine with it and not held it against me if I had told him I didn’t think I was ready,” Paul said. “But the fact that I did do it showed I was unselfish and just wanted to do what I could for the betterment of the team.”
And yet, the phrase ‘thrown to the wolves’ insinuates itself into the conversation.
“I did come in at a tough spot, right at the start of the ACC schedule,” Jesperson said. “I tried to adapt the best I could. Once I came off the redshirt, it was ‘no more excuses.’ I tried not to think of the negatives. I had a lot of people help me with the mental game, and I tried to make the best of it.
“It makes me that much more confident. Now I know what it’s like when a quick, physical guard tries to climb up on me. Now I know what I have to work on, so I’ll go to work.”
The third-year Virginia coach also noted the inopportune timing.
“Both freshmen that played came into a very difficult situation,” he said. “We were on the verge of our first NCAA tournament berth (for Virginia under Bennett’s direction) and every game mattered, every possession mattered. At times they played not to make a mistake. You have to play with real aggression. It’s a learning curve and especially the way Paul came in almost predisposes a player to react that way. These weren’t the early-season games where you can roll a guy out there and let him find his game.
“All of a sudden, he’s changing his course and giving up his redshirt, but I’m so glad he did that. He had some big moments for our team. I don’t know if we would have made the NCAA tournament if he hadn’t given us the contributions that he did.”
There’s absolutely no question that the NCAA March Madness berth made the decision worth it.
“It was a blast,” Paul said. “A lot of people have the dream to play in it, but never get to do it.”
The Cavaliers may have been ranked as high as 15th in the nation at the point when they held a 14-1 record, but the team wasn’t disheartened about falling to a 10-seed in the West Regional-one of four regionals in the tournament.
“Once you get in, none of what you did before matters, whether you had 30 wins, 25 wins,” Jesperson said. “We were just excited for the chance.”
Virginia closed out a 22-10 season with a 71-45 tournament loss to Florida, by far the squad’s worst loss.
“I wish we could have played better,” Jesperson said of the NCAA game. “We try to impose our will on other teams defensively, and then make some shots. We felt Florida imposed its will on us. That was definitely disappointing.
“We had breakdowns at times, but for the most part none of the games were out of reach. We really only had two games where they took it to us, at North Carolina and with Florida.”
Seven of the team’s 10 losses were by two or three points. After falling 70-52 at North Carolina, the Cavaliers hung within a 54-51 contest of the Tar Heels at Charlottesville two weeks later.
Jesperson’s most memorable moments included a 7-point, 3-rebound, 3-assist performance in a 61-59 victory at Virginia Tech. His putback of a Mike Scott miss provided the winning points. And there was the game at Cameron Indoor Stadium, home of Duke, where he wowed fans with a two-handed dunk shortly after entering the game.
“It wasn’t only the dunk,” he said. “Spectators have an idea, but unless you’re out there playing, you don’t feel how exciting it is. You feed off of that and get amped up to play, even though they aren’t even rooting for you.”
So what does Paul need to do to improve his game?
“….tighten up my handle so I can break guys down,” he said. “Mainly sizing a guy up and make a play off of it. I need to learn to stop on a dime and pull up, and just get consistent with my shot. I need to improve on my physical side, just getting in the weight room. That was the main reason I decided to red-shirt, to get stronger.”
At this level, there is no ‘off’-season.
“We had a week off, now we start lifting again (Tuesday, March 27),” he stated.
“It’s a big off-season for Paul and all our young players,” Bennett noted. “Paul’s a worker and he’s really going to embrace that challenge. He needs to continue to develop physically, improve his athleticism and to become as consistent as he can with getting his shot off. I hope all our young players can say next year at this time, ‘Boy, I’m a lot better player than I was last year.’
“Spring and summer is the time for individual development. Then in fall it becomes about the team. We will be taking an international tour this year-you can take one every four years-to Paris, Belgium and the Netherlands and play 4-5 professional teams. That experience should help our young players’ development.”
Three seniors will graduate from the team, opening up potential playing time for Paul, especially if he can pick up his game after an atypical 28% shooting year.
“I was getting wide open looks, I just wasn’t knocking them down,” he said. “Now that I’ve got a taste of what it’s like, the confidence will definitely come.”
Bennett may be one of the most qualified people in the country to help Jesperson groove his shot. He still holds the NCAA record for career three-pointing shooting with spectacular 49.7% accuracy. He was also the 1992 Frances Pomeroy Naismith Award winner for best senior player under six-feet tall.
The Cavaliers will sport a drastically altered look with the graduation of Sporting News Third Team All-American and AP Honorable Mention Mike Scott-who averaged 18 points per game and 8.3 rebounds-guard Sammy Zeglinski and 7-foot center Assane Sene.
“We’ll be a different team,” Bennett said. “We’ll have to be more balanced, whether it’s 4-5 guys or even six guys averaging 8-12 points a game. We’ll find out strengths as the season progresses. We’ll be a younger team with only one senior and three upperclassmen.
“There will always be some constants, but every year you look at your personnel to determine what you’re going to play. We probably won’t have as dominant an inside player as Mike Scott.
“Paul gained some valuable experience playing in the NCAA tournament, playing North Carolina and at Duke, playing against competition at the highest level. There’s no substitute for game experience and he was thrown into the fire. Those experiences are going to help him develop as he enters his second year.”