From doubling his workouts to studying the nuances of post play, Alex Oriakhi has done a number of things to gear up for what he expects to be a breakthrough sophomore season.
Step No.1: Take responsibility.
"Last year's presence in the paint was ridiculous," Oriakhi said recently with a look of disgust.
As UConn stumbled to an 18-16 record in 2009-10, nothing was highlighted more than the Huskies' inconsistent perimeter play. Kemba Walker, Jerome Dyson and Stanley Robinson, talented as they were and dynamic as they could be on a given night, never offered the needed stability.
But that trio wasn't given much support. Oriakhi was at the center of it all, averaged five points and 6.6 rebounds in a freshman season that featured flashes of potential but also left those in the program wondering what is next.
"I think Alex could be a double-double guy," coach Jim Calhoun said. "Has he shown me that? No."
Said associate head coach George Blaney: "Alex hasn't proven on this stage that he can get big numbers. He's proven he can play. He's competed against the best and he's had some big numbers against some really good players, but he needs to have better numbers to prove it to himself."
Oriakhi is now in a unique position. Serviceable but limited as a freshman, he enters this season as the unquestioned leader and focal point of an uncharacteristically thin UConn frontcourt. Ater Majok left the program. German center Enosch Wolf won't join the team until mid-December. Tyler Olander is a freshman. Michael Bradley, another freshman, isn't expected to be a factor. Senior Charles Okwandu is limited.
To be fair, there are more questions about Oriakhi's supporting cast than there are for him, but he's spent the last seven months trying to build on what he can control, prepare for what he can prepare for. Oriakhi, 6 feet 9 and 260 pounds, has been built like a Big East forward from the time he committed to the program after his freshman year of high school in 2006. He bulked up even more, adding 35 pounds, for instance, to his maximum bench press (265).
He has been lifting weights twice a day, in the morning with strength coach Chris West and in the afternoon with other members of the team. In between, he plays pickup. At night, he takes a few hundred shots, works on post maneuvers during individual instruction and usually closes the night by watching a Jeff Adrien video compilation.
Perhaps most important, Oriakhi has convinced himself to embrace the pressure, and better handle it. He went through last season thinking he was doing all he could. He played, like many freshman do, looking over his shoulder and wondering what might next come out of Calhoun's mouth.
"I don't think I was mentally ready," he said. "I got frustrated out there. I'm not going to lie. Coach got me frustrated when I made mistakes. But being a sophomore, you're mature and you know how to handle it. I'm more mature and I'm confident. That's a major difference."
Oriakhi knows the expectations are higher for him than anyone else in the frontcourt. But here's the thing: so do opponents. Oriakhi expects to see double teams even more so than last year when Gavin Edwards and Majok played beside him.
That, he says, is not a concern.
"I want to average at least 13 or 14 points a game and double-figure rebounds," Oriakhi said. "I feel like I can do that because I have enough experience under my belt. I look at Jeff [Adrien]. I look at all the other UConn big men and see the jump they had from their freshman to sophomore year."
Oriakhi talks to Adrien, now with the Golden State Warriors, only occasionally but there is no bigger influence or role model. They're both Boston-area guys, hulking power forwards. Oriakhi loves Adrien's rebounding ability, and he does see similarities in their games.
"I'm a little taller and I feel like I can get just as strong as him," Oriakhi said. "He has a nice mid-range shot I'm working on, too."
As much as Calhoun will need all of Oriakhi's muscle, he will also encourage him to operate a little farther from the basket. Oriakhi's 12- to 15-foot jump shot could become a weapon as UConn works to spread the floor a little more than usual. UConn's eight-year streak of leading the nation in blocks ended last season, and the Huskies will be as thin and challenged up front as they have been in a long, long time.
That doesn't mean their best post player can't be a major factor.
"I think one of our big guys could emerge as a go-to guy," Calhoun said. "Alex Oriakhi has to be really good, and I think he can be."Copyright © 2015, CT Now