NCAA Tournament

Alex Oriakhi has become a force for Missouri

Frank Haith watched his 6-foot-9 power forward awkwardly line up in the post, fumbling entry passes and missing shots.

Looking back at Alex Oriakhi’s first few months with the Tigers, Haith had this to say:

“I’m sure I was questioning, ‘Why are we still throwing him the ball?’”

But Haith had a plan for Oriakhi, and three months later he has not only turned into the Tigers’ most dependable low-post scorer, but a vocal leader as well. As MU prepares to open the NCAA Tournament on Thursday night against Colorado State, Oriakhi is averaging 11.1 points per game.

Even better, he’s shooting 34 for 40 from the field in Missouri’s last six games, an average of 13.5 points per game.

“We played two games there in Nashville, and he was just a man,” Haith said of Oriakhi, who averaged 14.5 points in the SEC tournament last week. “He’s playing with such controlled, high energy. And I think he’s really, from a leadership standpoint, accepting that role.

“Early in the year, he was like ‘Shoot, they’re throwing me the ball in the paint.’ But now he wants the ball, he posts early, he meets passes and he can finish.”

But turning Oriakhi into a confident, capable offensive player has been a journey. He had grown comfortable in his role as rebounder and low-post defender at Connecticut before transferring to Missouri last spring.

“I don’t think Alex Oriakhi ever had plays actually run for him his entire career at UConn,” ESPN analyst Jimmy Dykes said. “Frank’s done a real nice job of developing him offensively. It’s not like he came in and redshirted a year and sat out. He only had, really, a few months to work with him.”

In his sophomore year at Connecticut, Oriakhi averaged 9.6 points and 8.7 rebounds per game as he helped the Huskies win a national championship. His numbers dipped as a junior, largely due to the presence of five-star freshman Andre Drummond.

“Honestly, I feel I’m not really much of an offensive player,” Oriakhi said in November.

The comment stunned Haith, who refused to let it go. In Oriakhi, Haith saw a muscular, 255-pound athlete with good hands who could finish around the basket if he would only believe in himself. So Haith mandated the Tigers to continue feeding Oriakhi the ball in the post even if he kept missing shots.

“Coach, I think, has been very hard on him, trying to get him to where he is now,” said freshman forward Ryan Rosburg, who guards Oriakhi in practice. “I would say (the Florida game) was the turning point. We had a team meeting, and Coach Haith challenged him.

“He said Alex has done things that no one else has done. He’s won a national championship, he’s been in games we haven’t been to. He needs to use that experience to lead us because he’s done it all.”

Oriakhi remembers that speech and took it as a challenge. Not only step up offensively, but complement Bowers and junior point guard Phil Pressey as team leaders.

“I kind of started to understand where he was coming from,” Oriakhi said. “I want these guys to experience what I experienced (at UConn).”

So he stepped up. Despite a few foibles with referees — Oriakhi often seemed to be in foul trouble during conference play — his game finally hit a peak at the SEC tournament. He shot seven for seven in MU’s loss to Mississippi and six for seven in a win against Texas A&M, but also demanded the ball and stayed in his teammates’ ears.

“It was just me not wanting to lose,” Oriakhi said, “and have my teammates feed off of me so they could bring that same fire out there, just let them know this is really it.”

Perhaps more important, Oriakhi no longer says self-defeating things about his offensive game.

“No, I don’t think he says them anymore because I really killed him,” Haith said at a recent news conference, drawing a roomful of laughs. “I told him, ‘You’ve got to stop saying that stuff.’”

Oriakhi says Haith even does an imitation of Oriakhi’s saying “I’m not a good offensive player,” which comes complete with Haith’s exaggerated impression of Oriakhi’s deep voice.

“I still hear it to this day,” Oriakhi said. “But he’s helped me become the offensive player I never thought I could be as far as giving me a lot of confidence, running plays for me and believing in me. So he can make fun of me all he wants, but he’s helped make me an offensive player.”

Even if Haith never would have seen any of it — the dunks, the confidence, the offensive efficiency — coming a year ago.

“You get a guy playing like that this time of year, and it’s something you can ride to have some success in the tournament,” Haith said. “And we’re going to try to.”

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