COLUMBIA — Alex Oriakhi stopped laughing.
His trademark smile was no longer visible. He stared off in to the empty stands at Mizzou Arena, knowing the answer to the question.
Missouri Southern at Missouri
WHEN: 2 p.m.
WHERE: Mizzou Arena
Just one year ago, he was trying to mirror his successful sophomore season that helped his team, the UConn Huskies, win the 2011 National Championship.
He paused, taking himself back to a year of frustration.
There was no repeat. He lost playing time. There was no chemistry. He saw a team go from No. 4 in the nation to unranked. They lost in the first round of the tournament. He was miserable.
He sat quietly, still wounded.
Oriakhi transferred to Missouri in April because UConn is ineligible to play in the NCAA tournament this season, which was due to the team's poor academic performance.
But what if the Huskies were eligible? What if he could compete with the Huskies for a chance to win his second national championship, play with the team that was only about a two-hour drive from his Massachusetts home?
He looked up.
“I would have still left,” Oriakhi said with certainty.
He released a laugh laced with tension, flashing his smile once again, his practice uniform rustling as he chuckled. The 6-foot-9-inch forward has a new number, No. 42, and new colors.
He could have been wearing a Kentucky jersey. He could have been wearing a Duke or a North Carolina jersey. But Oriakhi, one of the most sought after transfers in the nation, was thankful to be wearing black and gold, one of six transfers on this year's Missouri team.
“He was the biggest surprise,” Missouri coach Frank Haith said, still shaking his head with amazement. “Because everybody wanted him. He was really thinking about other schools, so that was a big gift for us.”
Oriakhi chose Missouri for a number of reasons. Friend and former Amateur Athletic Union opponent Phil Pressey heavily recruited him. He realized that the Tigers needed a big man after the departures of Ricardo Ratliffe and Steve Moore. He wanted to play major minutes.
But in the end, Oriakhi simply found something at Missouri that he lost last season at UConn. His happiness.
“The chemistry is unbelievable,” Oriakhi said. “Everybody has a general liking for each other. Anytime I walk into the locker room, it’s just straight jokes. I can’t wait to get in there.
"The relationship with the coaching staff, I’ve never had that type of relationship before.”
He pauses, eyes glowing.
“It’s honestly a joy to come in here and work every day.”
Keion Bell would agree.
Like Oriakhi, Bell is playing his first season as a Tiger. He played three successful seasons at Pepperdine, where his 1,365 points is 17th all time at the school. He transferred to Missouri in June 2011, leaving his hometown of Los Angeles for something he saw in Columbia.
“Everything just seemed perfect,” Bell, a senior guard, said. “So far, it’s proven to be that. It’s just a big family environment.”
Earnest Ross saw it, too.
Like Oriakhi and Bell, Ross is playing his first season as a Tiger after transferring in June 2011. He played two years at Auburn, where he led the team in scoring with 13.1 points per game his sophomore year. But the junior guard yearned for a family environment, not just between players and coaches, but also with the fans.
“I wanted to play in front of a lot of fans that support the game of basketball. We had about 7,000 to 8,000 fans a game (at Auburn), as opposed to 15,000 to 16,000 at Missouri,” Ross said. “When you feel at home, it’s time to settle down, and I felt at home when I came here. That’s when I knew this was the place for me.”
Jabari Brown understands.
The former five-star recruit played only two games at Oregon as a freshman last season before transferring to Missouri in December 2011. He didn’t feel like he fit at Oregon and was coveted by many big name basketball programs.
What the sophomore guard didn’t feel there, he felt here.
“Everybody has different reasons for why they wanted to find a new school,” Brown said. “But I think at the end of the day, we’re all happy that we’re here.”
Oriakhi certainly is.
His wounded confidence from last season is slowly subsiding. For the first time in over a year, he’s on a team that he says reminds him of the 2011 National Champions. For the first time in his career, he actually has a coach running plays for him on a team that wants him to get the ball.
“For a coach to actually just run a play for me,” Oriakhi said, pausing before shaking his head in awe. “I’m still in shock, like this is almost too good to be true. I almost think I’m dreaming sometimes.”
He paused, flashed a trademark smile and started to laugh. It echoed throughout Mizzou Arena.
“I knew I made the right decision. I love being here," Oriakhi said. "I feel happy, and last year it was taken away from me. I’m just happy I’ve got it back."
Supervising editor is Grant Hodder.