COLUMBIA — An honorary coach of sorts loomed loudly behind the Missouri basketball bench for Saturday’s 75-70 win over Tennessee. Someone who knows a bit about how difficult it is to dominate at the rim. Someone who knows a bit about post play.
Former Missouri forward Alex Oriakhi, on a visit to campus during the NBA All-Star break, couldn’t contain himself.
“That monotone voice sticks in your ear — it’s annoying,” Tigers coach Frank Haith said with a laugh. “I could hear Alex during the game yelling and screaming.”
But it was probably Oriahki’s words the previous night that made more of a difference for his former teammates. Oriakhi, who plays for the Sioux Falls Skyforce in the NBA Developmental League, stopped at Haith’s practice Friday night to talk to Missouri’s forwards, a group of players whose struggles this season have been well documented.
That meeting, combined with the mounting stakes of the season, helped Haith present his forwards with a challenge. For the matchup with Tennessee’s talented frontcourt — specifically 260-pound giants Jarnell Stokes and Jeronne Maymon — it would be as important for Haith’s forwards to step up as it has been for any game this season.
“If we were going to win this game, they were going to have to have production,” Haith said Monday. “Doing the little things — defending, rebounding.”
That’s what Haith got, and more. Missouri forwards combined for a 29-point outburst against the Volunteers, easily their most productive output of the season. Freshman Johnathan Williams III led the way with 10 points, his first double-digit scoring outing since Dec. 28 against North Carolina State. Fellow rookie Torren Jones added eight points, doubling his previous career high. The pair was a combined 7-for-8 from the field.
Almost lost in the scoring surprise was the job Haith’s forwards did defensively on Maymon and Stokes, keeping both below their scoring and rebounding averages.
“Something that goes unnoticed is that Stokes didn’t score for 13 minutes there in the second half,” Haith said.
Actually, it was longer. Stokes didn’t even attempt a shot in the game’s final 17 minutes, a fact that undoubtedly factored into the game’s outcome. It was a silencing of an elite post player unlike any previously seen from Missouri this season, and it was executed with a complete team effort.
Other Southeastern Conference teams are taking notice.
“Their three perimeter players are all pretty lethal,” Vanderbilt coach Kevin Stallings said about the Tigers on a conference call Monday. The Commodores play at Missouri on Wednesday. “But then you look at that Tennessee box score and you watch that Tennessee game. I believe their post players combined for 13 points above their average. So they stretch you on all ends. They are a good rebounding team. They go back and forth between their defenses. So they keep you off balance.”
Oriakhi won’t be at Mizzou Arena on Wednesday when the Tigers try to even the season series against Vanderbilt after a 78-75 loss in Nashville on Jan. 16. But Haith hopes his forwards will prove that Saturday's breakout performance wasn't just an anomaly.
“We haven’t had the kind of production all year out of our post guys,” Haith said. “So that's a positive. Hopefully we can build on what those guys did the other day and continue to grow."
Supervising editor is Mark Selig.