clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Is UConn better off with Alex Oriakhi coming off the bench?

STORRS, CT - NOVEMBER 11:  Alex Oriakhi #34 of the Connecticut Huskies gestures during a game against the Columbia Lions  in the first half at Harry A. Gampel Pavilion on November 11, 2011 in Storrs, Connecticut. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
STORRS, CT - NOVEMBER 11: Alex Oriakhi #34 of the Connecticut Huskies gestures during a game against the Columbia Lions in the first half at Harry A. Gampel Pavilion on November 11, 2011 in Storrs, Connecticut. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
Getty Images

Although interest from the NBA is more tepid than what he likely expected at this point of his career, the bright side for Alex Oriakhi is that if he does stay the full four years at UConn, he will likely finish his college career as one of the more accomplished players in Husky history.

The most career wins, most games played, the 1,000-point club -- all are within Oriakhi's reach, as is the chance to become one of the few UConn men's basketball players to ever win two titles.

But despite all that he can accomplish, and all that he, the most senior player on the 2011-12 Huskies, has already accomplished in his two-plus years in Storrs, not even Oriakhi is privileged enough to get a pass from Jim Calhoun.

So in light of the junior's recent struggles, Calhoun booted Oriakhi (already with 72 starts to his name) from the starting lineup Thursday in favor of freshman Andre Drummond.

In 15 minutes played, Oriakhi finished with just four points, three blocks, two rebounds and two turnovers. But it was one of his tweets, in response to former teammate and BFF Jamal Coombs-McDaniel, afterward that made the most impact on Thursday.

To recap:

Coombs-McDaniel (@JCM4MG): Got my guy @aoriakhi34 coming off the bench...sheesh..two year starter where's the loyalty

Oriakhi (@aoriakhi34): @JCM4MG I know sum bs

Coombs-McDaniel (@JCM4MG): @aoriakhi34 Keep hooping..u already kno u bout to turn it up next game

It's no secret that Drummond and Oriakhi have struggled playing alongside each other thus far. It's hard to draw any major conclusions from a five-game sample, all against teams without much size, and conventional wisdom would tell you that Oriakhi, a two-year-starter, a former five-star prospect and perhaps the second-most important player during last season's title run, will figure things out and make his way back into the starting lineup.

But this Oriakhi issue also has the potential to linger for some time.

Although the junior's height (listed at 6-foot-9) necessitates that he play the 4, his game, at this point, is better suited at the 5-spot; it's no surprise that the Huskies truly clicked late last season when they limited the minutes of Charles Okwandu and began playing Oriakhi as a small-ball center, with Roscoe Smith and Coombs-McDaniel manning the 4.

But the emergence of Tyler Olander this season could force Oriakhi out of the starting lineup altogether, and for good. 

While Oriakhi is still a monster on the offensive glass (he currently has two fewer offensive rebounds than Olander, despite averaging almost eight fewer minutes a game), he has virtually the same overall rebound rate as Olander (16.05 for Oriakhi, 16.17 for Olander). And without a mid-range game as polished as Olander's to stretch the floor -- I've long harped on Oriakhi's lack of an offensive game, and he hasn't made huge strides after another offseason to work on it -- teams really don't have to worry about Oriakhi on the high pick-and-rolls the team loves to run. Plus, he clogs up the paint some on those Shabazz Napier dribble-drives.

So the decision for a starting spot may not be between Oriakhi and Olander at the 4, where Oriakhi started for a large chunk of last season and was presumed to again heading into 2011-12, but Oriakhi and Drummond at center.

Calhoun admitted as much after the game.

"[Oriakhi] has a tough guy to beat out," Calhoun said (referring to Drummond).

Although Drummond (nine points, five rebounds, two TOs, a block and a steal on Thursday) hasn't flashed much of that all-world talent yet, the super frosh may be the better option as the starting center, regardless of how raw he may still be. Unlike Oriakhi, Drummond was born to be a roll man because of the way the uber-athletic center explodes to the rim and his above-average ball-handling skills for a big man. And despite having only one more block than Oriakhi this season, Drummond probably has the edge as a shot-blocker, too, if only because his size alone (6-10, 270 lbs.) creates a lot of intimidations (something Calhoun loved to bring up with Hasheem Thabeet).

With Olander and Drummond together, what you're now getting is a starting frontcourt a little light on experience, but one that's far more versatile and features less redundancy than one with Oriakhi and either one or the other.

So even if Orikahi plays up to Calhoun's standards, it's possible that the same skill set that made him such a cog in the Huskies' championship machine now doesn't fit well enough with this year's pieces to warrant a starting role on a team with such talent and depth. While it may lead to a few more angry tweets from Oriakhi, perhaps the team is better off keeping him in a reserve role, where he can pair with Roscoe Smith in a small-ball lineup similar to the one in which he was so successful last season.

(I also have a theory that without Kemba Walker and the bevy of shots he produced at the rim, having a monster on the offensive boards like Oriakhi is less important, especially since UConn seems to be taking far more shots from the mid-range this season -- which tend to produce longer rebounds -- with guys like Jeremy Lamb, DeAndre Daniels, Napier and Olander getting heavy court time. However, offensive rebounds are never a bad thing to have, the Huskies are only averaging one more 3-pointer per game thus far and I don't have shot selection data to back it up, so this is likely just idle speculation. Just something to throw out there.)

However, Coombs-McDaniel may have a point. Somewhat.

UConn doesn't win a championship last April without Oriakhi there to clean up all those misses, and while Napier seems to be the new voice of the locker room, it sure seems like Oriakhi isn't that far behind on the leadership hierarchy. You would think that he has earned a leash longer than four games, all of which UConn would have won regardless of if Das Germans were starting.

On the other hand, this is just how Calhoun rolls, and it is a bit odd to see Oriakhi, after two-plus years under the coach, not only not understand that, but also take a jab at him like that in a public forum. Especially after he was relegated to a reserve role last season, against Notre Dame to end the regular season and vs. DePaul in the Big East Tournament opener, and responded with aplomb. (Although, getting replaced by a freshman rather than a senior might be a bit tougher on the ego.)

Still, it's something that will likely blow over in a day or so. Even though he's a junior and therefore probably should know better, he's a kid who was mad, and digitally broadcasting every emotion one has is what kids do these days. Oriakhi may hear it from Calhoun a little bit, but these things happen in a sports, where testosterone fills the air as much as locker-room BO.

Instead, Oriakhi should be more concerned with how he can get back his starting spot back. Because the way things look thus far (again: only five games), the Huskies may be better off leaving him out of the starting lineup for good.