COLUMBIA, Mo. – Alex Oriakhi celebrated a national championship with UConn in 2011. Now, the forward is ready to do his part for No. 15 Missouri.
The Tigers were a 30-win team and No. 2 NCAA regional seed in coach Frank Haith's first season. Hopes are high for the second season that begins Saturday against Southern Illinois-Edwardsville, despite a radically remade roster.
Oriakhi is among a group of heralded additions to a team that has just one returning starter, preseason SEC player of the year Phil Pressey, but also has dynamic forward Laurence Bowers back after missing last season with a knee injury. Missouri opens the season without guard Michael Dixon, perhaps the nation's top sixth man last season, for violating team rules.
"There's definitely a lot of excitement," Oriakhi said. "I remember in the summertime we were just talking about 'We can't wait for the season.' That's all we talked about, 'the season, the season.'
"And now it's finally here."
In the early going, Pressey confesses that he's driven partly by fear of failure.
"When the games count, that really opens my eyes because you lose, you're 0-1 and you're on SportsCenter," Pressey said. "If you win, nobody knows about it, so you've just got to take it one game at a time and win them all."
For Haith, there's no second-guessing the debut season that fizzled in the NCAA tournament opener when the Tigers were upset by 15th seed Norfolk State. The coach points out the team overcame adversity, winning the Big 12 tournament title with just seven scholarship players.
"I thought we had an outstanding year last year," Haith said. "Man, you couldn't have done no better than that."
Haith said the Tigers, who became just the fifth No. 2 seed to get upset by a No. 15 challenger, just ran into a once-in-a-lifetime performance.
"We didn't play bad, go back and look at the stats," Haith said. "We shot 56 percent from the floor, 50 percent from 3. So, that team didn't lay an egg."
That team lost Marcus Denmon and Kim English to the NBA draft, plus center Ricardo Ratliffe. Haith's response is what one publication rated the best transfer class in history, with Oriakhi and guards Keion Bell and Earnest Ross starting in the exhibitions.
"We're a lot bigger team. We have a lot more dunkers, athleticism," Pressey said. "Last year, we just had a lot of shooters. It's going to take time for us to really get a good feel for each other in game time."
Bell, who transferred from Pepperdine, is healthy after missing the second exhibition game due to pneumonia, watching from home while saddled with a high fever. He's from Los Angeles and is adjusting to Midwestern weather.
"Can't really wear tank tops when it's snowing," Bell said. "But I'm feeling good."
The same goes for Bowers, who watched the 30-win season from the bench while rehabbing from surgery. He cannot deny the enthusiasm.
"It's exciting," Bowers said. "I wouldn't say it means a little bit more. But deep down inside, we know that it does."
Haith preaches defensive intensity that'll lead to the flashy moments on the other end of the court. Players seem to be listening.
"Coach thinks we have potential to be a great defensive team, and I honestly believe him," Oriakhi said. "We have pretty good athletes on this team.
"We're quick, we're athletic, so we've got to use that to our advantage."
Haith said Dixon "still needs time to clear up some stuff off the court," but noted there was plenty of backcourt depth. He's happy with the overall play in the exhibitions, and the chance those games provided to dip deep into the roster.
"That's their showtime," Pressey said. "The freshmen, their first game. It was just a good thing they could get out there and produce."
Haith noted that going back to the team's European trip in August, somebody's always been missing.
"Obviously, we got a lot of playing time for our guys," Haith said. "The biggest thing, because we have so many guys who haven't played, is those guys just being able to play with the lights on."