UConn's depth helps Calhoun figure way to unlock Oriakhi's potential

by | CBSSports.com College Basketball Insider
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UConn's Alex Oriakhi struggles on the courts have led to his minutes being cut by Jim Calhoun. (US Presswire)  
UConn's Alex Oriakhi struggles on the courts have led to his minutes being cut by Jim Calhoun. (US Presswire)  

STORRS, Conn. -- It took exactly 62 seconds from the time the ball was tossed up for Jim Calhoun to yank Alex Oriakhi from the court.

Honestly, it's nothing new for Oriakhi or virtually any other UConn Husky player in the Calhoun era -- which is now in the midst of its 26th season. Former UConn point guard Marcus Williams once came in and out of the game three times within the first two minutes. Oriakhi has been pulled even earlier in the game in his career.

But it's different these days.

This was supposed to be his year. With Kemba Walker gone, Oriakhi was the grizzled veteran, a junior who would likely share the spotlight with smooth and talented guard Jeremy Lamb. He nearly averaged a double-double (9.6 ppg, 8.7 rpg) last season for a team that won the national championship. You can make a case that Oriakhi was the best player on the floor the night of April 4, when he scored 11 points, pulled down a game-high 11 rebounds and swatted four of Butler's shots.

Then along came a guy named Andre Drummond.

"It's been tough," Oriakhi said after a five-point effort in which all of his points came within a 2½-minute stretch late in the 67-53 win over Harvard on Thursday night. "I won't lie to you."

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"I've always told myself not to expect anything easy," he added. "But honestly, I never expected this."

This is Oriakhi averaging 6.7 points and 5.8 rebounds through the first nine games of the season. That's sixth on the team in scoring, behind fellow big men Drummond and Tyler Olander, and also third in rebounding -- trailing both of his frontcourt mates.

"I don't know what it is," Oriakhi said when the question was posed as to why he's only playing 20 minutes per game -- which ranks seventh on the team. "I can't answer that. Only coach can."

The difference was that Calhoun needed Oriakhi a year ago. Desperately. The other big men were Charles Okwandu and Olander, who was green and primarily ineffective.

Let's get one thing straight: Calhoun doesn't just like Oriakhi. He loves him. Just about everyone he comes across does because he's honest, thoughtful and charismatic. "He's as good a kid as I've ever coached," Calhoun boasts.

But Calhoun wants no part of "good kids" on the court. He wants killers -- and that's never been Oriakhi's M.O.

"I know I have the reputation of not playing hard at times," Oriakhi said. "And I know he just wants me to play hard."

The thought all along was that Calhoun, as demanding a coach as you'll find in college basketball, would be the ideal fit for Oriakhi. The tough Bostonian would toughen up the good-natured, funny kid who grew up just outside of Boston, and turn him into a lottery pick in the process.

It hasn't quite worked out that way, though. We're two-plus years into the relationship and Oriakhi hasn't become exactly what Calhoun had envisioned, a warrior in the mold of former UConn big man Jeff Adrien.

So now the hard-nosed Calhoun says he intends to change his approach with Oriakhi, instead of screaming profanities at him the plan will be to soften up, maybe treat Oriakhi like one of his grandchildren.

"At the [Christmas] break, I'm going to do something different and massage him," Calhoun said.

I'll believe it when I see it.

Oriakhi admits his confidence isn't near at the level where it was at the end of last season, when he was a key cog in the team's title run. But he also feels as though he needs to be able to play through his mistakes -- as was the case for much of last season.

"I don't make excuses," Oriakhi said. "In the game, I'm always going to make mistakes. But I feel that, if I'm allowed to play through them, I'm a better player. It's difficult when you feel as though you can't make a mistake or you'll be out of the game."

But Calhoun has other options nowadays.

The 6-foot-10, 270-pound Drummond is a manchild, a likely high lottery pick who opted -- at the 11th-hour -- to come to college this season instead of doing another season in the prep school ranks. In fairness to Olander, he gives the Huskies a different dimension up front -- a skilled forward who can make perimeter shots and also pass the ball.

Maybe this was one more last gasp at Calhoun trying to see if he could change Oriakhi.

But it hasn't worked and Calhoun, a guy who rarely changes his approach, admitted that it's time for a new tactic with his teddy bear of a big man.

"I know I'm going to find a light at the end of the tunnel," Oriakhi said. "It's tough for me right now, sitting on the bench. It's not what I'm used to, but I don't want to be a cancer. If I'm upset, I'm not going to show it around my teammates -- because I learned last year that the most important thing is winning."

And the UConn Huskies aren't cutting down the nets again without getting more from Oriakhi.

"He'll be fine," Calhoun said.

"I know I will, too," Oriakhi added. "But I won't lie to you. This hasn't been easy."

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