After last season’s Saint Joseph’s men’s basketball team won the Atlantic 10 Championship, expectations were naturally going to be set high for Pierfrancesco “Checco” Oliva, especially since he started 30 out of 33 games for the 2016 A-10 champions as a freshman.
However, offseason knee surgery to the all-around 6-foot-8 forward has provided a new challenge for the sophomore from Taranto, Italy.
In June, Oliva underwent surgery to repair damaged cartilage in his right knee that has been a chronic condition. Oliva aggravated the injury while undergoing post-season workouts, leading him to need the operation. Oliva was then ruled out for the 2016-2017 after surgery.
“I didn’t expect it. It’s not something that happened on the court,” Oliva said. “It happened over time.”
Oliva said he was disappointed when he was told he was going to miss the upcoming season. But, not one to dwell on negatives, Oliva started to look for the positives. What good could come from a season-ending injury, after all?
“I told myself it was meant to happen and I’ve got to learn from it,” Oliva said. “I have a year to get better at the things I can get better at and become a student of the game.”
And that’s exactly what the sophomore forward has been doing.
“Now I feel a lot better. Looking back, it’s like, wow, I really went through that, but I feel like it’s going to make me stronger mentally in the end,” he said.
“Right now, I’m shooting free throws as far as on-the-court [work] goes,” he continued. “When the team is shooting free throws or working on dribbling, I try to be involved. I can’t run yet or jump on the court.”
As of now, Oliva can run and jump in a pool as part of his rehab.
“I’m not supposed to shoot, but I do a little bit,” he said with a smile.
He is aware of the dangers of pushing himself before his leg is ready. In the end, Oliva stressed that being patient is the smart decision because he does not want to set back his rehab.
Every part of the recovery has been tough, but the most difficult part has been watching his teammates play in games without him.
“Watching games is the hardest part,” Oliva said. “When it’s a good game and we have a big crowd, I picture myself on the court and what I would do in the game. But then I try to support my teammates. There are younger players, and I was in their position last year when I was lost at times or it was against a big crowd. I try to think what I needed in that moment or what someone did for me in that moment to help me. So, that’s what I try to do for the team.”
Oliva knows all about expectations after last season. No one expected him to start, including himself. But it was something he worked hard for, and he was given the chance last season. Oliva believes that most people underestimated every player on last year’s squad.
“They underestimated every single player on the court,” he said. “We had a culture of winning. We did not like losing last year, and it didn’t matter if it was against the top teams in the nation or the bottom. We just wanted to win.”
For the 2015-2016 season, Oliva averaged 4.0 points, 3.7 rebounds, and 1.7 assists in 16.5 minutes per game. In his collegiate debut against Drexel, Oliva flashed his all-around ability as a player with a stat line of 12 points, four rebounds, four assists, and three blocks.
“Winning the A-10 is not something everybody does during their college career, Oliva said. “I learned from the experience, but I was also lucky to play with players like DeAndre’ Bembry, Isaiah Miles, and Aaron Brown. Coming out of high school, I wasn’t used to the physicality and the game over here. They made sure you got used to it and made sure that you wouldn’t let them down. That’s what you want in a team.”
Before his injury, Oliva was working hard on improving his defense and becoming more of an inside-outside threat. But he was also working on getting his confidence back. At the beginning of the season, Oliva felt confident in his game. Then as the season progressed, he lost some confidence.
“I started lacking some confidence and it was all my fault,” Oliva said. “I was overthinking, missing shots, and never looking at the good things on the court, only the negatives.”
So even though the injury stopped Oliva from working out physically, he is still preparing himself mentally for when he can step back on the court.
“It’s horrible not playing; it’s like an addiction,” Oliva said. “When you have it, it is good and when you don’t have it you crave it. I have nightmares about playing at night. But you’ve got to enjoy the worst moments to enjoy the better ones.”
And Oliva believes there are better days ahead.