Senior Night unique for Missouri

COLUMBIA — When Missouri forward Laurence Bowers was a freshman, he was coming off the bench helping Missouri during its run to the Elite 8 in the NCAA Tournament.

At that time Keion Bell was a freshman at Pepperdine and Alex Oriakhi was still in high school.

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Frank Haith is 51-13 as head coach at Missouri after taking over for Mike Anderson.

Now, five years later, Bowers will walk off the Mizzou Arena floor for the final time with Bell and Oriakhi, each having played less than 30 games together.

The Tigers (21-8, 10-6 Southeastern Conference) are hoping to send their seniors out as winners today as they host Arkansas (6 p.m. ESPN-TV) at Mizzou Arena.

“That is unique,” Missouri coach Frank Haith said of the makeup of the team’s senior class.

Bowers, who has become a fan favorite in his five years at Missouri, is here for an extra season because of a knee injury that forced him to miss all of last year.

It was a different road to Columbia for the other two, however.

Oriakhi left Connecticut after three seasons after the Huskies were ruled ineligible for the postseason when they failed to meet the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate.

Because of this, he didn’t have to sit out a season. He choose Missouri over Kentucky because he wanted the chance to play with Phil Pressey.

“I remember when I first got here in the summer and our first game, time really flies,” Oriakhi said. “But like I said, Mizzou has definitely been special to me. I feel like I’ve been going here for four years as far as the coaching staff, the fans. It’s definitely been a great experience and I knew I made the right decision when I committed.”

Bell came to Missouri after three seasons at Pepperdine. After working with Missouri while sitting out last season, he has played a key role on the offensive and defensive end, averaging 11.9 points per game.

So how does a team end up with a fifth-year senior and two one-year seniors?

It was a combination of luck and necessity.

When Missouri coach Frank Haith took over prior to last season, he had a lot of ground to make up in recruiting. In his mind, it wasn’t practical to bring in a class of seven freshmen. So Haith put together a unique class of transfers so there would be a mix of youth and experience. Also, there wouldn’t be a major drop-off after graduating five scholarship seniors last season.

“We wanted balance in our classes,” Haith said. “We were fortunate. There were guys out there who fit into those spots. We had one late for Alex. Did I know Alex was leaving? No, we just had one (scholarship). It just so happened to work out. We have three seniors, a couple juniors. We have balance in our classes.”

Bowers, Bell and Oriakhi all average double figures for Missouri, a sign the transfer class has been able to gel in a short period of time.

“They’ve both had great impacts this year on our team,” Haith said. “I will say this about (Bell and Oriakhi). They have embraced this community. Usually when you have a transfer who’s only been here one year, can you really embrace being a Mizzou Tiger?”

III

Missouri is looking to wrap up a perfect home season for the first time since the 2008-09 season and the ninth time since 1970.

To do so, the Tigers will have to beat an Arkansas team that tripped up Missouri 73-71 last month in Fayetteville, Ark. Missouri led by four with less than a minute left but couldn’t hold on.

To turn the tables this time around, the Tigers will likely need to control forward Marshawn Powell, who scored 24 points in the first meeting.

“He lit us up,” Haith said of Powell. “He posted it and he was aggressive against us. We’ve got to do a good job. I know Laurence and Tony, we’ve all got to accept the challenge.”

Back-to-back wins for Missouri have likely solidified its NCAA Tournament status. The Tigers have also climbed to a tie for fourth in the conference standings with Mississippi. Missouri owns the tiebreaker with Mississippi thanks to its win against Florida, meaning the Tigers would get a double-bye in the SEC Tournament if it stays in the top four. Missouri closes the regular season Saturday against Tennessee.

Arkansas (18-11, 9-7 SEC) could use a big win to bolster its NCAA Tournament hopes. A win against Missouri would go a long way in doing that.

III

Oriakhi was named the SEC Player of the Week after his performances against South Carolina and LSU. He scored 24 points against South Carolina on Thursday before returning Saturday to score 18 points and grab 10 rebounds against LSU.

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