FREDERICTON, N.B. — His team’s side of the scoreboard will claim otherwise, but this weekend Aaron O’Brien is home.
The six-foot-nine, 230-pound Pasadena native is back in the province with his University of New Brunswick Varsity Reds basketball team to tip off against the Memorial University of Newfoundland Sea-Hawks tonight and Sunday in St. John’s.
“It’s great to get that feeling of being home,” O’Brien said earlier this week. “No matter where you go, you always miss home.”
He expects plenty of family members and friends to be in attendance for both games, which he acknowledges is exciting, but also presents a few challenges outside those of the typical basketball variety.
“Sure, it’s going to be nice to see people, but I’m there to play basketball,” he said. “You can’t get distracted by anything else.”
Now one of the starting five, finding his focus is a must for O’Brien and, he admits, the earlier the better.
“I’ve got to learn what it is that gets my head in the game, because once my head is in the game I’m fine,” he said. “The main thing for me is the first five minutes. I’ve got to come out strong and it’ll carry on. It’s just a matter of getting my head in the game right from the get-go.”
As those comments allude to, O’Brien’s second season with the V-Reds has been a mixed bag so far, with a couple of strong performances offset by a game or two he’d like to have back. The old “You’re only as good as your last game” axiom is in his corner, however, with his latest outing, against St. Francis Xavier, standing out as his best by far.
Playing a season-high 24 minutes, O’Brien put up 15 points on six-of-11 shooting, with a perfect percentage in three free-throw attempts. He grabbed eight rebounds — five offensive, three defensive — while registering three blocks and an assist.
It was the sort of game that can send self-confidence soaring.
“It really shows that you can play,” he said. “That’s just what you need.”
Unfortunately it wasn’t enough, as the V-Reds were defeated 102-78. They’ve lost three of four games this year to date, though a win against Dalhousie was an all-important four-point game, a sporadic scheduling bonus in the Atlantic University Sport (AUS) calendar.
With just four players missing from last year’s roster, O’Brien still feels the V-Reds are playoff material. Eight teams are vying for six post-season slots.
The 1-3 start isn’t ideal, but by no means is it catastrophic. Not in this league.
“The great thing about this league is every game you don’t know the result ... it’s not like you know you’re going to win by 20 or lose by 20,” he said. “You go into that game and the tempo you bring will show you the result you’re going to get.
“We’re staying positive,” he added. “I definitely think we have a great shot at the playoffs this year.”
O’Brien will likely be a large part of any success the team enjoys. Already he’s fourth in the AUS in blocks with five and his eight offensive rebounds position him in 10th place.
“I’m getting to learn the university game and knowing where I’ve got to be and getting there in time,” he said.
He said his coach, Brent Baker, is happy with his progress from last season and continues to work him hard as the transformation into a potential varsity hoops star continues.
“In the heat of practice there’s no such thing as taking a break, it’s the most intense practice I’ve seen,” O’Brien said. “But once it ends, you know you’ve had a good practice and that’s the key to improvement.”
And there’s really no doubt he’s improving. No longer the awestruck rookie who could hardly believe there were bigger, taller, faster players surrounding him after years of dominating the sport at the local level, O’Brien is beginning to believe he belongs.
“My confidence level on the court is just day and night compared to last year,” he said. “I’m just hoping to keep that going. I’m still fairly new at this level, so it’s just trying to get that consistency going.”
There would be no better place to build on his most-recent performance than in his home province against the team he was once courted by. A flawless weekend on the Rock against the 0-6 Sea-Hawks would bring his squad back to .500 and give them a clean slate as they move towards the meat of the schedule.
“MUN is never to be underestimated,” O’Brien said. “They’ve got heart, they really do, but we’ve been practising for it and we’re hoping to get the sweep.”
The Sea-Hawks host O’Brien and the V-Reds 8 p.m. tonight and 1 p.m. Sunday afternoon.
A look at Aaron O’Brien’s season so far:
Game 1 (Nov. 9) — 69-53 loss to Acadia. O’Brien plays 11 minutes, scoring four points, with 1 OREB, 1 DREB.
Game 2 (Nov. 10) — 83-60 loss to Acadia. O’Brien plays 17 minutes, scoring four points, with 1 OREB, 2 DREBs, 1BLK.
Game 3 (Nov. 17) — 65-52 win over Dalhousie. O’Brien plays nine minutes, scoring no points, with 1 OREB, 1 DREB, 1BLK.
Game 4 (Nov. 18) — 102-78 loss to St. Francis Xavier. O’Brien plays 24 minutes, scoring 15 points, with 5 OREBs, 3 DREBs, 1AST, 3BLKs.