Missouri’s Oriakhi no stranger to postseason success

Missouri’s Alex Oriakhi (42) draws the foul as South Carolina’s Mindaugas Kacinas (25) defends during their game last month in Columbia, S.C.

Missouri’s Alex Oriakhi (42) draws the foul as South Carolina’s Mindaugas Kacinas (25) defends during their game last month in Columbia, S.C. Photo by The Associated Press.

COLUMBIA — Missouri center Alex Oriakhi knows a thing or two about going on a run in March.

Missouri is hopeful it can channel some of Oriakhi’s experience from Connecticut’s 2011 national championship team as it opens play in the SEC Tournament at 9 p.m. today against Texas A&M in Nashville, Tenn.

“It’s been done before,” Oriakhi said about Connecticut’s run to the title. “It was something I didn’t even think was going to happen. It was a lot of similarities. We lost our last four out of five that year. We had nine (conference) losses at that point. We came into that tournament limping.”

The journey to the national title was unexpected and not easy for Connecticut.

Connecticut was on the NCAA Tournament bubble entering the Big East Tournament that season. The Huskies won five games in five days to capture the tournament, then won six straight in the NCAA Tournament to win the national title despite having lost 10 games that season.

Missouri coach Frank Haith said he sees similarities in that Connecticut team and this year’s Missouri squad. Connecticut had high expectations that year, but stumbled in conference play. That’s not unlike Missouri’s season, which went a little off target after the Tigers finished sixth in the SEC.

“I think their team was a makeup like ours,” Haith said. “They’ve got to have a little star power, which I think we do have. And then we’ve got length, and we’ve got size.”

Oriakhi played a big part in helping Connecticut win the title. He averaged 7.3 points and 9.3 rebounds per game in that season’s six NCAA Tournament games. He finished with 11 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks in the Huskies’ 53-41 victory against Butler in the title game.

He’s played in seven NCAA Tournament games in his career. The rest of Missouri’s team has just nine, with all of those coming from Phil Pressey (two) and Laurence Bowers (seven).

“If we’re going to put a couple wins in this NCAA Tournament, things can definitely change for us,” Oriakhi said. “Every day is a new day.”

Similar to Oriakhi’s team at Connecticut, Missouri (22-9, 11-7 SEC) took a beating at times in SEC play. Other teams improved their NCAA Tournament hopes at Missouri’s expense at the end of the season, most notably Kentucky and Tennessee, who picked up key victories against Missouri in the final weeks of the season.

“I’m kind of tired of putting people in the tournament,” Oriakhi said. “It’s over with now. One-game elimination and we’ve got to stop doing that. We’re kind of tired of making people’s seasons.”

The SEC Tournament is where Missouri’s journey starts though. It’s a field that is wide open without a real prohibitive favorite. That could play into Missouri’s hands.

“I think it’s extremely wide open,” Oriakhi said. “I think everybody is kind of beating up on everybody. You never really know. It’s there for the taking if we want it. We’ve just got to take care of business. It’s a neutral site, no home court advantage obviously. I think everything is there for us to do what we need to do.”

Notes: Kentucky has won 27 of the 53 SEC Tournaments. Alabama is second with six. Tennessee has four. ... The tournament was held from 1933-1952 before it was discontinued. It resumed in 1979. ... Vanderbilt is the defending champion. ... The tournament is scheduled to be held at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta next season.

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