If you’ve ever blown a flat tire in the middle of nowhere, you might know what it’s like to come back from a torn ACL.
So says Cal Poly men’s basketball swingman Chris O’Brien. The senior from Irvine is back from just such a tear as the Mustangs start their full practice schedule today.
Last preseason, O’Brien landed awkwardly after missing a dunk in a 2-on-2 game. It was his first day back in the gym after hurting his shoulder lifting weights, and the three pops he felt — tears to his left ACL, MCL and meniscus — ended that season before it even started.
After 12 months away from competition, he’ll have some rust to shake off as Cal Poly embarks on a season where injuries have already been a concern, but O’Brien said his body feels better than ever.
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His recovery has been free of setbacks, and he ran a career-best 5 minutes, 4 seconds in the Mustangs’ recent mile test, right behind junior forward Chris Eversley, who finished in 4:57.
“It’s almost like changing the tires on a car,” O’Brien said of his recovery. “It’s not a bad thing. It’s a long process, but once you got them going, everything starts feeling pretty good.”
O’Brien’s return to health has been one bright spot in a preseason where his teammates have been dogged by injuries.
Junior guard Maliik Love had foot surgery and is expected to be out the rest of the calendar year, likely to redshirt altogether.
Redshirt freshman guard Reese Morgan said he is still recovering from offseason surgery to repair a retearing of the meniscus that was initially operated on last year.
Morgan is on track to be full strength by the season opener at TCU on Nov. 9, Cal Poly head coach Joe Callero said, but will still need to catch up on conditioning.
Senior swingman Drake U’u and true freshman forward Zach Allmon, a former Mission Prep standout, have each been unable to practice for the past five weeks with ankle injuries.
At 6-foot-4, 210 pounds, O’Brien’s versatility is highly valued. He can play either of the wing positions as well as handle the point.
When he last played in 2010-11, O’Brien was fifth on the team with 5.9 points per game, led the Mustangs with an 80.6 free-throw shooting percent and sported a team-best 1.53-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
“He brings not only experience, but, just in terms of style of play, versatility,” Eversley said. “He can play one through three, and if we go small, he can even play some four.
“And with Maliik out, we’re going to need him and Kyle and Jamal splitting those point-guard minutes.”
Junior point guard Jamal Johnson, who has already missed some time with a concussion, is on track to start. Kyle Odister, a junior combo guard, could see his first significant minutes since missing all of 2010-11 with a chronic ankle injury.
Senior guard Dylan Royer, a former Tribune County Player of the Year from Morro Bay High, Eversley and O’Brien are the other projected starters.
As for who starts at center, that figures to be the biggest thing to sort out in the first month of practice.
No matter what happens, the role will likely go to a freshman, either first-year players Brian Bennett (6-9, 240) or Zach Gordon (6-8, 215) or redshirt freshman Joel Awich (6-7, 205), Callero said.
“It’s going to be who’s healthy,” Callero said, “who’s producing for 21 days. That job is wide open. The others aren’t really in competition.”
Though there are seven returning juniors and seniors on the roster, that experience is contrasted by the six freshmen and one walk-on sophomore.
The divide makes the installation of Callero’s offensive and defensive schemes an intriguing storyline heading into the season opener.
The young players have a lot to learn to catch up with the veterans, and Callero is going to need at least three freshmen to play significant minutes.
And O’Brien’s leadership when it comes to younger players is one of his understated strengths.
At 23 years old, the former San Francisco transfer who once gray-shirted a season for Princeton and is the son of a longtime high school coach is a big-brother figure who sometimes feels like the team grandpa.
“He’s so confident in what he needs to be done and in his role in what a leader needs to do,” Callero said. “He’s not wondering if he’s supposed to lead or say something, he just does it now.
Said O’Brien: “It’s just second nature to me now. In terms of what coach wants and what we’re trying to do. … And I think knowing that, I’m able to reflect it to these other guys pretty efficiently in a way that they can learn.”