COLUMBIA — Missouri forward Alex Oriakhi sits down on a small hard folding chair, wincing a bit before finally settling down. Oriakhi just completed a grueling two-and-a-half hour practice Wednesday that left his legs sore.
The practice would have been even tougher for the University of Connecticut transfer a few months ago. Because of his weight, there were times Oriakhi could barely sprint across the court or burst to the perimeter to block a long-range shooter.
Those scenes are much rarer now. Rigid conditioning has transformed Oriakhi into something much more than a master rebounder. He is becoming a much more formidable player.
Oriakhi was out of shape when he first arrived at Missouri. Frequent trips to McDonald's, Burger King and fried chicken joints instead of the gym during the transfer process reduced his stamina and speed.
"Next thing you know, I came on my visit and I'm 260-something (pounds)," Oriakhi said with wide eyes at the thought of being that heavy. "I've never weighed that much in my life. I couldn't believe it."
Oriakhi weighed about 240 pounds at UConn.
Strength coach Todor Pandov immediately started working with Oriakhi. There were days where Oriakhi didn't even touch a basketball because he was on the treadmill running — sometimes two or three sessions a day. Oriakhi started cutting back his fast-food intake, which was a challenge for him because he was surrounded by fast-food restaurants in Columbia.
"I think the treadmill did a tremendous job for me because I really lived on it," Oriakhi said. "Next thing you know, I started looking at myself in the mirror, and I lost all the weight."
Having stamina is a must in head coach Frank Haith's transition-heavy offense. Oriakhi said there was no way he could have survived playing in that offense in his condition. Oriakhi is now a little heavier at around 247 pounds, but he has less body fat. The process to tone up and lose weight took from June to September.
Although he was in shape at the beginning of the season, there were several times when Haith said Oriakhi needed to get quicker on defense. Now, there's little question of Oriakhi's speed. Oriakhi can be seen sprinting to the 3-point line from the key to put an stretched out palm in a shooter's face when the opportunity is right.
"I definitely think I've improved tremendously," Oriakhi said.
Oriakhi was also having trouble fielding point guard Phil Pressey's laser-like passes. The ball often bounced off the forward's hands and into the courtside sponsorship signs.
More playing time with Pressey has helped Oriakhi become more familiar with Pressey's passes. Oriakhi said he thought learning Pressey's playing style would be easy like it was when the two played together in AAU, but it wasn't.
Oriakhi said he didn't get a chance to see many offensive touches at UConn, but Haith has constantly told his players to throw the ball to Oriakhi in the paint.
Pressey and Oriakhi now know what works and doesn't through repetition.
Oriakhi is always prepared to catch the ball when Pressey drives. Oriakhi made it clear to Pressey that he loves it when the ball is lobbed into the air for Oriakhi to slam through the rim.
Oriakhi, who averages 10.6 points per game, said he points his index finger up to let Pressey know he is open for a play.
Despite his improvement, Oriakhi is constantly looking to get better. He says the shape he is in right now can give him the chance to help take some of the scoring burden off of forward Laurence Bowers.
"It's just to keep attacking it and working on it," Oriakhi said. "I'm going to improve on it, and it can only better."