The numbers don’t leap off the page ‘-‘- eight points, six rebounds for one; three rebounds and no points for the other. But the one that stands out, and the one that matters most for freshmen Jake O’Brien and Jeff Pelage, is this: 42 combined minutes.
That’s far more than anyone could have expected for rookies in their first collegiate game ‘-‘- and against Atlantic-10 competition, no less. With the incumbent starting center, junior Scott Brittain, out with a concussion, O’Brien was called on to start against George Washington’s Rob Diggs, and he and Pelage rotated throughout the contest.
The Boston University men’s basketball team lost its season opener, 63-58, but both rookies acquitted themselves well exactly where BU coach Dennis Wolff needed them to: defense.
‘I thought they played terrific team defense,’ GW coach Karl Hobbs said. ‘We had over 25 turnovers, and I think half of those turnovers were due to the defense. Those guys understood that they needed to be a little bit tougher defensively and they needed to be a little bit tougher on the backboards.’
The rookies held the senior Diggs, GW’s leading scorer and rebounder last season, to two points in the first half, while playing tough, fundamental team defense in the paint. O’Brien, particularly by snagging boards in traffic and blocking three shots, quickly answered any questions about his hoops fortitude.
‘People who have watched him play in high school commented about his toughness, maybe because he was a thinner guy,’ Wolff said. ‘Jake is very tough. The plays he made, contesting shots against bigger guys. This was as good a first effort by a freshman forward as we’ve had here in a long time.’
Coming in at 6-foot-9 and 240 pounds, Pelage had little to prove about his toughness, but, like all freshmen, he did have to show Wolff that he could execute his defensive assignments. In that respect, the forward from Pompano Beach, Fla., got a good jump off the blocks.
‘Jeff Pelage is really learning a lot about basketball in general and the transition to college,’ Wolff said. ‘He gave us a little bit of a presence inside that we haven’t had because of his size.’
Though hardly unexpected for a freshman in front of an Agganis Arena crowd of 4,624, the offensive side of the ball was a different story. Pelage missed all three of his shots from the field ‘-‘- though he would have had some easy shots had he held onto a couple loose balls ‘-‘- and both his free throws. He did, however, draw a shooting foul on a simple spin-and-hook with Diggs defending on the block.
O’Brien’s night started with a bang of the wrong kind, as he watched his first career shot soar out of bounds after being rocketed by the hand of Diggs. He finished 3-of-11 from the field but, exemplifying the toughness Wolff spoke of, O’Brien slowly worked himself into the offense. By game’s end, he had nailed a contested three in the corner and put a textbook up-and-under move on Diggs that earned the rookie an easy layup.
More so than any of the shots that he made, O’Brien’s increased comfort level as the game progressed was evidenced by two shots he took in the final five minutes, and by Wolff’s trust to run the offense through him in the post on more than one possession.
‘This was a game I’ve been looking forward to for a while,’ O’Brien said. ‘It was a different game coming from high school to college, so I didn’t know where to find my shot, but toward the end I settled in and was able to look for my shot when it was open.’
Coming off a season when the team’s largest weakness was interior defense and rebounding, the fact that two rookies were able to settle into this veteran team and play significant, effective minutes at the center position might be the best thing other than a ‘W’ the Terriers could have taken out of their first test.
‘These two kids have helped change the look of our team,’ Wolff said.