Missouri men’s basketball coach Frank Haith has held, even before the season began, that defense would be a calling card for his No. 16 Tigers.
“Rebounding, defense is a big part of who this team is right now,” he said.
Perhaps somebody should tell senior forward Alex Oriakhi.
The Connecticut transfer joined the Tigers (5-1) to fill a gaping hole in the front court left by 2011 big man Ricardo Ratliffe and sure up the Missouri defense.
Yet through the young season Oriakhi has emerged as an offensive force for Haith’s squad, averaging 11.8 points and 8.8 rebounds per game. He’s also posted two double-doubles in his past five games.
“I think coach Haith is just doing a great job at giving me confidence,” Oriakhi said. “And I think as a player, that’s what any basketball player needs.”
After looking out of sync in Haith’s spread pick-and-roll offense through the preseason, Oriakhi’s first big performance came against Alcorn State. He posted his first double-double as a Tiger with 12 points, 10 of which coming from the foul line, and 10 rebounds in a 91-54 drubbing of the Braves.
Three days later against Nicholls State, he posted a team-high 17 points, debuting a bevy of classy post-moves, and 10 more boards to lead Missouri past the Colonels.
Oriakhi’s offensive tear continued at the Battle 4 Atlantis tournament where he averaged 11.3 points per game and six rebounds.
“Honestly, I feel I'm not really much of an offensive player,” Oriahki said. “But coach Haith is doing a great job of emphasizing throwing the ball to me and I feel when they double team me I'm going to be able to make plays as well.”
Don’t forget, the 6-foot-9-inch senior still leads the team in blocks. He says his role on the court will be the same as always.
“(My role is) what it’s been my whole life: be a defensive presence, rebound, block shots,” he said. “I know Phil (Pressey) is going to get me some easy buckets so I really try not to focus on offense. But they throw me the ball so much, it’s kind of hard not to.”
Haith has given senior guard Phil Pressey, an old AAU teammate of Oriakhi’s, distinct directions to keep feeding the big fella on the block. If Missouri’s 2012 identity of athletic bruiser, as opposed to 2011’s get-out-and-run mentality, is to last, an inside game is crucial, the second year coach says.
“We got to keep throwing the ball inside to Alex and establish that as an emphasis to who we are as a basketball team,” Haith said. “We’re going to keep going to him, even though I think it’s a little different for him.”
Pressey, meanwhile, sees no trouble rekindling chemistry with his old teammate from the Boston Amateur Basketball Club. Though still struggling to get on the same page, the on-court relationship is improving.
“When I was younger, it was kind of like an easy thing because we played with each other for so long,” Pressey said. “But then we didn’t play with each other for a couple years so it kind of got lost. Now I’m getting used to it, passing him the ball … I think the game has become easier for me and him as we play more together.”