Oriakhi improving as Mizzou’s post man

UConn transfer not just a rebounding threat

By Matthew Fairburn

Alex Oriakhi goes up for a shot near the basketball against Vanderbilt. He scored 18 points and had 12 rebounds in the game.

Alex Oriakhi goes up for a shot near the basketball against Vanderbilt. He scored 18 points and had 12 rebounds in the game. KBIA file photo.

Missouri forward Alex Oriakhi came to the program last year with an identity.

During his time at UConn, where he spent three seasons before transferring to Missouri, the 6-foot-9-inch senior was a rebounder. That role was drilled into him early in his career, and it’s a role that helped the Huskies win the 2011 National Championship.

“I remember coach Blaney, our assistant, he said ‘Every missed shot is a pass to you,’” Oriakhi said with a laugh. “Once I heard that I said ‘You might as well go to the offensive glass a lot.’”

But Missouri coach Frank Haith has been working hard to change Oriakhi’s mindset on offense. That has been especially true in the last five games, as the Tigers have been without leading scorer Laurence Bowers, who has been nursing a sprained medial collateral ligament.

With Bowers out of the lineup, Oriakhi has been the team’s main scoring option at the low post.

“We’ve asked him to be a guy that can score in the paint for us and give us that presence and play inside out,” Haith said. “His role is totally different from what it was at UConn. He was primarily a screener or rebounder.  We want him to do those things, but we also want him to score.”

Oriakhi has seized his opportunity, scoring 36 points and collecting 23 rebounds in the team’s last two games. Oriakhi said he knew he would need to step up in Bowers’ absence but also added that the team will be better off having fought through five games without their senior leader.

“It definitely sees where your heart is,” Oriakhi said. “When your leading scorer is out you ask yourself ‘Who’s going to step up?’ I definitely think it helped in terms of adversity.”

The next challenge for Oriakhi and the Tigers is to take the recent success they have had at home and translate it to road games.

Since beginning conference play, Missouri has lost its two road games by a combined 46 points, while remaining undefeated at home. Oriakhi, meanwhile, is averaging just four points and four rebounds per road game compared to 18 points and 10 rebounds at Mizzou Arena in conference play.

“I personally feel we let the environment get to us,” Oriakhi said.

“I personally haven’t played well on the road, and we as a team haven’t played well on the road,” he added. “I look at it as a challenge to get better and improve on the past mistakes we’ve made.”

Missouri (15-4, 4-2) will have a chance to end its road struggles when the team heads to Baton Rouge, La. on Wednesday to take on LSU (10-7, 1-5). The Tigers expect Bowers to have a chance to play in Wednesday’s game, even if it’s in a limited capacity.

As for Oriakhi, Haith still thinks the big man is selling himself short.

“He’s a loony tune,” Haith said.

“He says stuff like ‘That’s my best offense if I rebound,’” Haith added in a deepened voice, giving his best Oriakhi impression. “We want him to score, too.”

While Oriakhi doesn’t always display his confidence publicly, the senior insists he has plenty of faith in his abilities. He attributes that to the change of scenery he’s gotten this season.

“Coming here was definitely a breath of fresh air,” Oriakhi said. “Coach Haith is a great coach to play for in terms of giving you confidence. Coming from where I came from, that’s exactly what I needed.”

Oriakhi’s confidence has carried over to the foul line. He has been one of Missouri’s most reliable free throw shooters, making 85 percent of his foul shots during conference play.

Junior guard Phil Pressey, who Oriakhi said had a big influence on his decision to play for Missouri, noted Oriakhi’s development and what it’s brought to the offense.

“He’s always been a rebounder and defensive player, but he’s been scoring the ball well and shooting the ball from the free throw line,” Pressey said. “I mean, he’s been playing some of the best basketball I’ve seen in a while, and I’m just happy for him.”

While Oriakhi said he has enjoyed the opportunity to be Missouri’s go-to-guy on offense, he’s also excited to have Bowers back next to him.

“He’s going to be our guy to score,” Oriakhi said. “I’m not really ever a player that’s cared about scoring. I just know when I rebound I score. We’re definitely excited to get him back.”

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