Jake O’Brien’s unlikely path to Temple success

Jake O’Brien’s unlikely path to Temple success
March 23, 2013, 4:00 pm
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DAYTON, Ohio – He grew up in Massachusetts. Went to high school in Boston. Went to college in Boston. Figured he’d keep playing ball in Boston until he was done with the game. That was the plan. Sometimes plans change.
 
“It’s been an interesting couple of years,” Jake O’Brien said with a nod.

Before O’Brien started launching threes on North Broad Street – before he gained the confidence of his teammates and coach, before the adoring Temple fans christened him "Jake O’Buckets," and long before he became an integral part of an Owls team that will face Indiana in a third-round NCAA Tournament game on Sunday at UD Arena – he played for Boston University. He liked it there. He was good.

His first season, O’Brien set a BU freshman record for minutes played. He was third on the team in scoring (12.5 ppg), fourth in rebounding (4.6 rpg), sixth in the league in blocks (1.0 bpg), eighth in the league in free throw percentage (77.2). He was named the America East Conference Rookie of the Year. O’Brien’s future was bright.

His sophomore year, he was named third-team all-conference, and his junior season looked like it would be even better. O’Brien was named to the preseason all-conference team. He started the first 14 games that year, scored 11.6 ppg and led the team in rebounding (5.8 rpg).

Then the Terriers played UMass. Then O’Brien broke the navicular bone in his foot and required season-ending surgery. Then everything changed.

The 2011-12 season should have been O’Brien’s senior year. It should have been his time to lead and win and celebrate with his friends and teammates. It wasn’t. He redshirted when he required a second surgery on his foot.

“That was a tough time for me,” O’Brien said. “I actually didn’t know if I’d be playing again with my injury.”

He thought maybe he might be done. It wasn’t until this time last year that O’Brien started feeling good enough to consider playing again. Then he heard from Temple assistant Dwayne Killings, who was on staff at BU when O’Brien was there. They had a relationship, and it made sense to both to continue it in Philly – especially because O’Brien wanted to keep playing for a school that could compete in the NCAA Tournament. (The Terriers were banned from playing in their conference tournament because the school was leaving for another league.)

“Jake was in a unique situation,” Temple head coach Fran Dunphy said. “Boston U was leaving their conference and they weren’t going to be eligible to play in the NCAA Tournament. Jake looked around for some opportunities. I talked to his coaches, and they were great about it ... there was some getting used to it, though. It wasn’t like it was instantly something that was easy. He’s a great guy. It was just us getting used to each other.”

In August, O’Brien signed a financial aid agreement to attend Temple as a graduate student. Then he packed his bags and headed south to Philadelphia.

If there was uncertainty about the new and ephemeral union, the concerns dissolved – eventually. It wasn’t until about midway through the season, though, that Dunphy ramped up O’Brien’s minutes.

He’s a 6-9 forward, but O’Brien has more of a face-up game. It took a while for Temple to regularly utilize his skills. That’s what’s happened lately.

O’Brien has scored in double figures 17 times this year and 10 of the last 12 games. He’s also made at least one three pointer in all but three of the team’s 33 games so far. You could make an argument that, aside from Khalif Wyatt, O’Brien has been the team’s best player over the last month or so.

“He’s such a high-quality individual and he’s a very good basketball player,” Dunphy said. “He has unique abilities as a big man. He can step away from the basket and make shots. That’s not necessarily what we had at the power forward position. We needed that kind of attribute in our program.”

That was certainly the case in the Owls’ second-round NCAA Tournament win over N.C. State on Friday. Wyatt led the way with 31 points. Wyatt usually leads the way. When he doesn’t, that’s a bad sign for Temple. But O’Brien contributed plenty. He went 7-for-9 from the field and 4-for-6 from distance to score 18 points, second on the team. He also added five rebounds.

In the Temple locker room on Saturday, before the Owls headed out to the court to prepare for the Hoosiers, O’Brien reflected on his path, on how one injury and two surgeries lead him here, to within one win of the Sweet 16.

“I wanted to find a place where I could compete in the NCAA Tournament,” O’Brien said. “I wanted a place where I could be a big contributor on a team. I thought Temple offered both of that. I had it narrowed down to a few schools, but Temple really fit the criteria. It’s been a great experience so far.”