When Alex Oriakhi got his transfer release from Connecticut in the spring of 2012, he had to put away his phone.
“I had all these numbers from different area codes I didn’t know,” he said. “I’m on the phone with one coach and another one is calling … I had to turn my phone off a few times because it was just too hectic.”
The Tigers’ prized senior center was the hottest commodity of the off-season’s robust transfer class. Coaches from Missouri’s Frank Haith to Kentucky’s John Calipari wanted a shot at landing this week's Southeastern Conference player of the week.
Though Kentucky seemed right for Oriakhi, he would have missed out on reuniting with junior guard Phil Pressey, an old AAU teammate, who has orchestrated MU’s offense to the ninth-best efficiency rating in the nation.
Oriakhi headlined the Tigers’ 2012-13 transfer class — what many call the best ever — and will play his last home game for Missouri tonight versus Arkansas in one of the oddest senior nights MU has ever seen.
Of the three graduating seniors — guard Keion Bell, forward Laurence Bowers and Oriakhi —only Bowers has played his entire career in Columbia.
Bowers’ six years at Missouri have scarcely gone unnoticed. He’s the outspoken captain of the Tigers, equipped with powerful inside play, a feathery jump shot and an intellect that landed him on the 2012 Mizzou 39 list.
Bell, meanwhile, transferred from Pepperdine, where he scored more than 1,300 points with the Waves. He sat out the 2011-12 season because of transfer rules but has made an impact as a defensive stalwart.
He's is the team’s best free throw shooter, putting up 15.4 points per game in his last five contests, including 24 to push Missouri past South Carolina for a crucial road win.
He’s the backup point guard who organizes the Tigers’ offense while Pressey takes breathers and gets game-plan tweaks from Haith.
He’s an energetic part of the team whose silly game face can be seen hopping around on Mizzou Arena’s scoreboard monitors during pump-up videos.
“When you switch schools and you transfer, your role is gonna change,” Bell said. “… It can be difficult to get used to, but once you sink into it, you’re all in to the role the coaches want you to play. You just have to reap the benefits from it.”
That exchange of roles has seen Bell at the end of the bench in casual-wear while his hip-hop single “Welcome to the Zou” blares; to the leading hype-man for Missouri hoops after his dunk over six people at Mizzou Madness; to frustration on the bench with an ankle injury that sidelined him for a game and a half; to flying through mid-air on a huge flush to ice the cake on MU’s win over LSU on Saturday.
“Roles can change when players are starting to become more comfortable and show that they can do other things,” Bell said. “Roles can change, and that’s happened with a lot of different people within our program.”
Even with the plethora of spots Bell has been assigned, Columbia feels like home, he said. While weighing his options after leaving Pepperdine, the Los Angeles native was slated to make campus visits to Missouri, Texas A&M and Oregon.
After visiting MU, though, Bell canceled his other visits. He was sold.
“It’s such a family environment, such a welcoming environment that although we’ve both only spent such a short amount of time here, it feels like we’ve been here forever,” he said of the time he and Oriakhi have spent at Missouri. “It feels like we belong here. It’s such a family, such a welcoming environment that I wouldn’t want to spend my senior night anywhere else.”
Oriakhi has been Missouri's resident bully on the court and his dominant physicality has endeared him to his teammates and student section. His off-court demeanor sheds light on the man Haith calls a “gentle giant” — a thoughtful, kind and laughable 6-foot-9 beast trying to reconcile his uniformed persona with that of his in street clothes.
Where Bowers is scholarly off the court and Bell turns his creativity from dunks to rap hits, Oriakhi cedes his power to live an existence with a close-knit friend group and few distractions.
“I know when I’m on the court, you can’t be nice,” he said. “Somebody’s coming in to try to take something from you. I always have that mindset. I look at it like it’s me and you in a room and one person has to get out. That’s how I look at it. It’s a dog-eat-dog world, and that’s how this sport is.”
That attitude has drawn the ire of spectators and media members who at times questioned Oriakhi’s focus and sportsmanship, especially when contact under the basket strays from boxing out to shoving and elbows after the play.
A friend of Missouri assistant coach Rick Carter even remarked to the first-year coach that Oriakhi must be a troublemaker off the court, too.
“He doesn’t know me,” Oriakhi said of Carter’s friend. “But at the end of the day, I don’t care what people think about me. I’m here to win. What they think about me off the court, that’s different, but if they don’t like me on the court, that’s something I don’t worry about. I focus on my energy on what I can control and I’m trying to win, so if they don’t like me, I’m trying to win, man.”
Since returning from his mid-season ankle sprain, Bell has the spring back in his step. Bowers has finally returned to form after an MCL sprain in a win over Alabama that kept him out of five games. In his absence, Oriakhi slid into a new offensive role, one that has him averaging 11.1 points a game, the highest scoring clip of his career.
Riding a two-game win streak and leftover momentum from the Feb. 19 upset of then-No. 5 Florida, the Tigers are firing on all cylinders with a full bench and new additions that at long last are playing like teammates who have played together for four years — fitting for a senior night showdown.
“I like where we’re at now," Haith said. "We’re healthy and we’re in March. We’ve got two games this week before the conference tournament. (Tonight) if we play like we’ve played the last two games, that tells me we’re headed in the right direction. There’s some things as a coach you’re always trying to improve on and you’re always trying to get better at, but I like where we’re headed.”