By Jon Rothstein
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Frank Haith knew this past weekend would represent a change in Missouri basketball that would last a very long time.
How could he not? The Tigers were unveiling their new uniforms.
And no matter how stylish or slick that new apparel looked, it will pale in comparison to the news Haith received on Friday night when he got word that Alex Oriakhi had committed to play for the Tigers next season after spending the first three years of his college career at UCONN. Oriakhi will be eligible to play next season because the Huskies will be ineligible for the postseason.
“It’s almost like getting a Christmas present you weren’t expecting,” Haith said of landing Oriakhi. “Alex is an unusual transfer. He won a National Championship at UCONN and was a huge part of that run in 2011. It’s awesome that we were able to land him.”
The addition of Oriakhi makes Missouri a threat to finish in the top four in the SEC next season. The Tigers will officially join the conference on July 1, thus ending a long marriage with the Big 12.
Despite winning 30 games and a conference tournament tournament championship last season, Missouri saw its journey end with a disappointing loss to Norfolk State in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The defeat exposed a lack of size up front, something that should be remedied with the addition of Oriakhi.
The 6-foot-9 bruiser should form one of the more potent power forward-center combos in college basketball next season with Laurence Bowers, a skilled big man who missed all of last season for Missouri with an ACL tear.
Haith sees the two meshing well.
“The interesting thing is that with Laurence being hurt all year, the big thing he focused on was shooting the basketball,” Haith said of Bowers. “He really developed his ability to step away from the basket. Now obviously, he has to prove that when he steps on the floor but the difference was noticeable in his ability to put the ball in the basket. That should help Alex, whose someone who can anchor things for us down low on offense.”
Missouri should also be better with Oriakhi defensively roaming in the middle of the paint.
“He’s going to be a rim protector for us,” Haith said of Oriakhi. “Laurence is also a better shot blocker than people give him credit for. Two years ago he blocked more shots than both Ricardo Ratliffe and Steve Moore combined.”
With their front court now set to be more traditional, Missouri has the pieces to make their first season in the SEC extremely competitive.
“We’ve got some pretty good players,” Haith said. “I think it’s safe to say that Phil Pressey and Michael Dixon have to be considered among the elite back courts in the nation and we’ve got three really good guys sitting out in Keion Bell, Jabari Brown, and Earnest Ross.”
Haith said he’s also counting on freshmen Tony Criswell and Stefan Jankovic to play minutes next season. Criswell should be in the rotation because of his size (6-9, 230) and is likely to provide minutes off the bench behind Oriakhi and Bauers.
The additions of Bell, Brown, and Ross should also make Missouri more versatile.
In three seasons at Pepperdine, Bell scored just under 1,400 points, and had a knack for putting the ball in the basket. He averaged in double figures each year he played at the Southern California school.
“He was such a focal point in what they did that he almost had to do everything,” Haith said of Bell. “That’s not the case here. He proved in practice last year that can be a pass first guy.”
Brown only spent one semester at Oregon last year before transferring but was a major recruit coming out of high school and is a tremendous scorer. Ross meanwhile led Auburn two years ago in scoring and rebounding before opting to come to Columbia. He has good size at 6-foot-6 and could fill some of the void left behind by Kim English’s graduation.
“He allows you to play different ways,” Haith said of Ross. “He’s a big, physical guard that is very capable.”
The cast of characters will be slightly different and a little more conventional but it seems pretty realistic to say that just a month after Missouri completed an incredibly successful season, another one could be looming on the horizon.
“We’re excited to be in the SEC,” Haith said. “We’ve got the national champion in our league in Kentucky and we’re a different team.”
One now that is more conventional.
How far will Mizzou go with Oriakhi? Make your early prediction in the comments below…