|Oriakhi is playing one season at Mizzou after winning a title with UConn. (US Presswire)|
NASSAU, Bahamas -- The smile is back, the one that was virtually nonexistent last season, the one taken away from him while he was buried on the bench just a few months after helping lead the UConn Huskies to an improbable national title. Alex Oriakhi was miserable -- and who could blame him. He had gone from the mountaintop, as the most productive player in the national championship game, to the depths of despair within just a span of months.
Huskies coach Jim Calhoun had added eventual lottery pick Andre Drummond in the offseason, and despite the loss of Kemba Walker to the NBA, UConn was in prime position to contend for The Repeat. The frontcourt duo of Drummond and Oriakhi was supposed to be unstoppable, Jeremy Lamb was also considered a lottery pick -- and the Huskies welcomed a strong recruiting class that made them a consensus top-five preseason club.
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But the entire season was a mess, the Huskies holding a different title: Ultimate Underachievers. Oriakhi, the most productive player in the national championship game -- with 11 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks -- spent much of it sitting on the pine, trying to make sense of it all. When he sat in his locker following UConn's first-round loss to Iowa State in the first round of the NCAA tournament, putting the finishing touches on a brutal season in Storrs, Oriakhi knew there was no chance he was returning to Storrs for his final campaign.
"I didn't want to leave," Oriakhi said. "That's been home for me, but I've got to put myself in a position to take care of my mom. It was hard, though, to help a team win a national championship and then you're on the bench. Everyone talks about loyalty, but it's one-sided. Coach Calhoun tried to get me to stay, but my mind was made up. I was laughing at him in my head."
When Oriakhi first committed to UConn, along with Jamaal Coombs-McDaniel back when the duo were sophomores in high school, it was generally regarded as the ideal scenario for the talented, strong and athletic big man. The knock on Oriakhi was that he was a big teddy bear who needed someone to bring an edge to his game. Calhoun was the man who would turn Oriakhi into a beast, but it never quite happened that way. Oriakhi had a solid three seasons in Storrs, but never developed into the star that some anticipated. Calhoun outwardly heaped praise on Oriakhi for his character, but also expressed frustration for the miscues he would make on the court.
"Of course I made mistakes," Oriakhi said. "Everyone makes mistakes."
But now Oriakhi is allowed to play though his blunders. He doesn't get yanked in the first minute, as was the case with Calhoun. Shortly after the final buzzer sounded and he sat in the locker room, Oriakhi sent Missouri point guard and his former summer teammate Phil Pressey a text message, inquiring about the possibility of playing in Columbia for his final season. Both of Oriakhi's parents were 100 percent behind his decision to transfer, his father being vocal with the local media and on message boards regarding his dislike for Calhoun. Oriakhi flirted with Kentucky, but he knew where he wanted to be -- with Pressey, arguably the top pass-first guy in the country.
"He always made everything easy for me," Oriakhi said. "It's easy, so easy. You can average eight points a game just off Phil's passes. He's the best point guard in the country."
Now Oriakhi can't stop smiling, laughing and beaming -- and not just because he's playing with Pressey. He's quickly become a leader for Mizzou, which is ironic since it's exactly what Calhoun and the Huskies were lacking a year ago.
"Alex is our emotional leader," senior teammate Laurence Bowers said. "He can be having a terrible game, but he's always smiling. He understands the importance of being a great teammate and that rubs off on the guys on the bench."
Oriakhi wants to turn the page on his UConn career, but isn't exactly hesitant to mince words when the topic of his former coach is broached. His reasoning for him receiving decreased playing time a year ago, behind Drummond and Tyler Olander, is that Calhoun needed him to stick around another year because it was clear Drummond was a virtual lock to leave for the NBA.
"He's a Hall of Fame coach and I'm not taking anything away from him, but what he did was wrong in my opinion," Oriakhi said. "If you helped win a national title and then were on the bench, how would you feel? In my three years, I never, ever talked back to him. I kept quiet and did exactly what he told me. I got good grades, played hard and never got in trouble."
"What he did last year was ridiculous," he added. "Especially to a junior. I figured I'd get a little leeway. I didn't get treated like that as a freshman."
Oriakhi said that he learned plenty from his time under Calhoun. He is able to handle criticism with ease these days. He still hasn't spoken to Calhoun since informing him that he wouldn't be returning and said he never even had Calhoun's cell phone number in his time at the school.
"I'm not losing any sleep over that," Oriakhi said.
But Oriakhi continues to steer the interview toward the present and the future, how appreciative he is that he received an NCAA waiver to play immediately due to UConn being ineligible for the NCAA tournament this season because of low academic scores. That's what brings back that smile that lights up a room. However, he's also never been shy to tell the truth, and that's one of the more refreshing attributes of his engaging personality. He now lives with Pressey and two other teammates, often sends texts to new coach Frank Haith saying how much he loves playing for him and the Tigers, and he is still shocked when his new coach runs a play for him.
"It's unbelievable," Oriakhi said. "They yell at me when I don't shoot the ball. I know I'm never going to be the top offensive option and that's fine. But at UConn, they never ran a play for me. The only way I was getting a shot was to get an offensive rebound."
"He's the best kid I've ever been around," Haith said. "He's so coachable and does everything you ask him to do. He works his tail off and has all the qualities that make him a great leader."
Oriakhi has quickly become a key cog for a Missouri team that boasts as much overall talent as just about any team in the nation. The Tigers are a top-10ish club -- even without talented guard Michael Dixon, who remains suspended, and Oregon transfer Jabari Brown, who becomes eligible in a few weeks. Oriakhi's primary goals: Lead the nation in rebounding and most of all, win another national title. Oriakhi is averaging 11.8 points and 8.8 boards per game through the first six games of the season as Mizzou has gotten off to a 5-1 start.
"I don't care about minutes," he said. "I just want to win. That's what made it so difficult last season. We weren't winning."
There was the time before the Seton Hall game when he called his UConn teammates together, apologized for being greedy and volunteered to give up whatever precious minutes he was receiving at the time. The Huskies never turned it around, finished a lackluster 20-14 -- and Oriakhi remained on the bench for many of the critical moments. That's ancient history now, but still a source of motivation when he sees the abundance of talent in Missouri.
"You have to sacrifice," Oriakhi said.
Oriakhi's swagger is back, after it spiraled downward throughout last season. He's back producing on the court, hopeful that this year will help get him back in the conversation to be selected in June's NBA Draft -- so that he can take care of his mother and make certain she no longer has to work multiple jobs. Even after a disappointing personal performance in the final game down in the Bahamas, a six-point, six-rebound outing in a win over VCU, Oriakhi couldn't stop laughing.
"It wasn't my night, but we won -- and that's honestly all that matters now," Oriakhi said. "This has been the perfect situation. This staff believes in me. I'm really not trying to bad-mouth Coach Calhoun or the UConn program. I loved it there. I'm trying to pay him [Calhoun] back with success, to show him that you can't stop me -- and trying to prove to myself that I'm still the player I was a couple years ago."
Or even better.