Kevin Duffy: Oriakhi discovers it's a cold world
Updated 12:30 am, Wednesday, March 20, 2013
The similarities are too obvious for even Alex Oriakhi to ignore: An underachieving No. 9 seed backs into the NCAA tournament, and a potential matchup with the No. 1 overall team looms in the second round.
"Hopefully we just have a better ending this year," Oriakhi said by phone Tuesday.
Almost a year ago to the day, UConn, seeded ninth, bowed out to Iowa State in Round One. Oriakhi's transfer papers were filed within a week. He settled on Missouri within a month.
Today, as his No. 9 Tigers prepare for a clash with Colorado State and (maybe) top-seeded Louisville, Oriakhi seems content with the strange path he's taken. His physique is trimmed and his offensive numbers -- 11.1 points per game, 62.9 percent shooting from the field and 73.9 percent from the free-throw line -- are inflated. His subtle shots at UConn coaches are still in full-force.
"The (Missouri) coaching staff gives me a lot of confidence every day, even when I come off a bad game," Oriakhi said. "They let me play through mistakes. The coaching staff has made me into a completely different player."
His best memory at Missouri has been "the coaching staff." He says he talks to them like he talks to his teammates. He also says he's done worrying about the UConn fans that will forever label him "a traitor."
To better understand how the UConn faithful view Oriakhi, I recently asked for feedback via social media. The short responses ranged from "a forgettable character" to "childish" to "disloyal" to "ungrateful and selfish." The more elaborate responses painted the picture of one of UConn's "few true villains," as Milford native Justin Rodriguez wrote.
"I think Alex is going to go down as one of UConn's most disliked players in program history," Rodriguez wrote. "Personally, he went from being someone I was super-excited about his freshman year into someone I despise."
Truthfully, though, it's nothing Oriakhi hasn't already heard.
"One thing I've realized," Oriakhi said with a laugh, "is that it's a cold world out there."
An easy target for angry fans, Oriakhi says he's cool with most of his ex-teammates. He still talks to Ryan Boatright and DeAndre Daniels on the phone for a half-hour at a time. He keeps in contact with Niels Giffey, Tyler Olander, Andre Drummond and Jeremy Lamb. He insists that his teammates were never bitter about his transfer.
"They said they would have left, too," Oriakhi said.
While that scenario forever remains hypothetical (who knows if it's true?), Oriakhi's situation opens the forum for a discussion on loyalty in sports.
In his debut season, Kevin Ollie often used loyalty as a rallying cry, even dating back to his speech at First Night when he proclaimed, "(These players) are the reason I stand here today. Because they didn't transfer. A lot of other people transferred and they stayed. And with their loyalty, I had to come back."
In his first year, UConn -- which could have been great with Oriakhi, by the way -- had a terrific run: All the overtime games, the clutch performances, and the heart, energy and resilience that the Huskies displayed were a joy to witness.
But the notion of loyalty was a bit overblown.
The fact is this: Of players on the current roster, only Omar Calhoun truly had the chance to go elsewhere (he could have re-opened his recruitment). It would have made absolutely no sense for Shabazz Napier to transfer and sit out a year. And he certainly wasn't ready to go pro. Ditto for Boatright, Daniels, Olander and Giffey. Roscoe Smith, who would have received major minutes at UConn, left anyway, seeking a situation where he'd play small forward instead of power forward, according to a source. He was forced to sit out this season at UNLV.
Because UConn faced a one-year postseason ban, the NCAA waived normal transfer rules for players with just one remaining year of eligibility. Only Oriakhi fit the bill.
"People that are angry, they don't look at it from a realistic point of view," Oriakhi said. "You always have to do what's best for you at the end of the day."
It's so true. This is a business, and that often gets lost as we romanticize the purity of college basketball. The purpose of college -- for athletes or normal students -- is to set yourself up for the future. That's priority No. 1. How come no one called Drummond disloyal when he bolted after his freshman year? Because it was the correct business decision. And when you analyze Oriakhi's departure, it's clear that he made a business decision, as well.
"I'm a guy who believes everything happens for a reason," Oriakhi said. "Maybe it was meant for me to be here."
This may be difficult for UConn fans to fathom, but Storrs isn't perfect for everyone. Jim Calhoun isn't for everyone, either. Calhoun's tactics worked brilliantly with most kids, but they didn't with Oriakhi, especially during his junior year. And neither side seemed to adjust: Calhoun kept with the quick-hook. Oriakhi didn't seem fired up, but rather increasingly disgruntled. Simply put, the two of them weren't a great match. So Oriakhi left, figuring he could find a better experience elsewhere. Understandable.
His lone misstep: The parting shots. In a November interview with CBS Sports, he said "what (Calhoun) did last year was ridiculous," referencing his lack of playing time. Oriakhi's comments have irked UConn fans. They've fueled the perceptions. Now, as he preps for his last NCAA tournament run, the fan base that once celebrated him has penciled in Colorado State for a Thursday night victory.
"Looking forward to a Missouri first-round loss," Rodriguez wrote.
"I am rooting for Mizzou to lose every game for the rest of the season -- let's just put it that way," added UConn fan Ben Baldwin.
A cold world, indeed.