COLUMBIA — Alex Oriakhi made the big decision almost a year ago.
Although Oriakhi is about to finish his only season with the Missouri men's basketball team, his presence has become vital to the team — especially as it heads into the postseason.
Missouri (22-8, 11-6 SEC)
at Tennessee (18-11, 10-7 SEC)
WHEN: 3 p.m.
WHERE: Thompson-Boling Arena, Knoxville, Tenn.
RADIO: KTGR/1580 AM; 100.5/103.1 FM
Oriakhi vividly remembers the night that eventually brought him to Missouri. UConn had just lost its second-round NCAA tournament game 77-64 against Iowa State last March in Louisville, Ky.
Oriakhi remembers spending 17 minutes on the bench watching Cyclones guard Chris Allen and forward Royce White dismantle the Huskies. Oriakhi was not even in foul trouble.
"Yeah man, I'm out of here," Oriakhi thought as he sat watching the game.
Every since freshman Andre Drummond arrived, Oriakhi's playing minutes with the Huskies had steadily shrank. Sure, Drummond was talented, and he was picked ninth overall in the 2012 NBA Draft, but the tournament loss was the final straw.
Oriakhi's benching and UConn's 2013 postseason ban made him eligible to play immediately after transferring, which pushed him to leave the Huskies. Oriakhi's older sister Amy Oriakhi said her brother had been unhappy in his last year at UConn.
After the game, Oriakhi ducked questions from reporters asking if he was leaving, but he had already decided. He texted Missouri point guard Phil Pressey before leaving the locker room that night.
"I'm thinking about making that move."
Pressey and Oriakhi's friendship stemmed from their time playing together in the Amateur Athletic Union. They hung out together on the weekends and got along well.
"Because I passed him the ball," Pressey joked with a big smile on his face.
A week later, Oriakhi was granted his release from UConn. Coaches and players from other programs that Oriakhi knew from basketball camps wanted him to play at their school. For the next month, he heard from them all. He remembered a two-hour conversation with a coach.
"I'm sorry, I don't want to talk to no 40 year-old man for no two hours on the phone," Oriakhi said with a big laugh. "I don't even do that with females."
Besides the phone calls, Oriakhi felt odd at Connecticut in his final months there. He remembers the dirty looks from students on campus and the nasty tweets from upset fans.
By April, relief came. A game of pickup basketball with Pressey and Tigers guard Keion Bell during an official visit led him to choose Missouri over North Carolina, Kentucky and Duke.
Going to Missouri was something Oriakhi said he wanted to do ever since he left UConn. He said he could not turn down playing with Pressey after watching Pressey throw perfect passes to former Missouri forward Ricardo Ratliffe. Pressey made the game easy for everyone around him.
"I swear to God, if I ever have a chance to play with Phil, I'm taking it," Oriakhi said.
Oriakhi arrived in Columbia in June. After a long day of practice and meetings, Oriakhi headed to his apartment. Oriakhi did not know where home was, though. What is usually a five-minute commute turned into an ordeal.
He found his apartment after using his GPS. It took him a month before he knew how to get around Columbia.
It took even longer for Oriakhi to truly mesh with the team. He had to shed almost 20 pounds because he was out of shape and even though he played with Pressey in AAU, he had to relearn how to catch Pressey's passes.
Oriakhi quickly became an effective rebounder, and he leads Missouri with 8.6 rebounds per game, helping the Tigers reach No. 2 in rebounding in the country.
When senior forward Laurence Bowers was hurt with a sprained right knee on Jan. 8, Oriakhi showed he was a more complete player, making up for some of Bowers' offensive production, something he was not known for at the time.
He scored 18 points in back-to-back games against South Carolina and Vanderbilt.
Before Bowers' five-game absence, Oriakhi was always humble about his offense but there has been a notable change in his demeanor. He is much more confident about his offense.
Now, Oriakhi will even shove his own teammates out of the way to score a basket and is averaging 11 points per game, something Missouri coach Frank Haith wanted to see.
"For us to be good we needed him to become a guy who wanted to score," Haith said.
Oriakhi is also developing as a leader. Haith said Oriakhi was apprehensive about the role at first, but has grown into it as he started fitting in with the team. The Missouri coaching staff wanted to take advantage of Oriakhi's experience from his 2011 national championship run.
Oriakhi is developing into a well-rounded player at the right time with the postseason approaching quickly.
"It's been a great experience for me," Oriakhi said. "Just getting a new breath of fresh air, a new atmosphere, playing in a new conference, finding some new guys to call my brothers. It's been great, now I just want to finish this strong and go as deep as I can into the tournament."
Haith has called Oriakhi a "gentle giant," several times during the season.
His typical wide smile and the laughter after each of his sentences has made the Tigers' locker room a brighter place. His good humor has been a good trait. Oriakhi said it has helped the team stay optimistic during tough stretches like when Missouri was struggling on the road.
Even in postgame news conferences when Oriakhi is making fun of Haith's sideline reactions or wardrobe, the coach has difficulty concealing a small smile.
Now, it's hard for any of the Tigers to imagine what the team would be like without Oriakhi. Had things gone differently that March night in Louisville, there might have been less points, less rebounds and less laughter this season for the Missouri men's basketball team.