Amid March Madness 2011, Alex Oriakhi was a sophomore at Connecticut embarking on a national title run.
Colton Iverson was a junior at Minnesota looking to be anywhere but there.
Two circuitous years later, they will converge Thursday under entirely different circumstances and identities in Lexington, Ky., as the players who loom largest – literally and figuratively – over the Mizzou-Colorado State NCAA Tournament opener.
The 6-foot-9, 255-pound Oriakhi has emerged as the emotional leader of the Tigers, 23-10 and seeded ninth in the Midwest bracket, partly because of his vocal and volatile demeanor on the court and partly because of his sheer production – especially in recent weeks.
Oriakhi is seventh in the nation in field-goal percentage (62.9) and averaging 11.1 points and 8.6 rebounds for the third-best rebounding team in the country in terms of average margin (plus-9.5).
“Alex Oriakhi is a great talent and very athletic,” Iverson said in a phone interview on Monday. “He’s going to be a tough matchup for us.”
And vice versa.
Iverson, 6-10, 260, averages 14.7 points and 9.8 rebounds, team bests for a Rams squad that has led the nation in rebounding margin (plus-12.1) along the way to the most wins (25-8) in school history.
“They go to the glass as well as anybody in the country,” MU coach Frank Haith said. “They’re tough; they’re physical.”
Like Oriakhi, who has hit 34 of his last 40 field goals, Iverson, the Mountain West newcomer of the year, is at his best now.
He had 24 points and 16 rebounds in CSU’s 75-65 loss to UNLV in the Mountain West Tournament semifinal.
“I don’t know when I’ve had an effort, let alone a performance, like (that of) Colton Iverson,” CSU coach Larry Eustachy, in his 22nd season as a head coach, said after that game. “For his size, his effort, I’d have to think long and hard when I’ve had somebody do that.”
Unlike Oriakhi, who averaged 9.1 points and 9.8 rebounds in Connecticut’s 11-game winning streak to end the 2011 season, Iverson enjoyed spot success but never sustained prosperity at his former school.
He averaged 5.3 points and 4.3 rebounds before deciding to transfer in 2011.
“After three years of just kind of flatlining at Minnesota, I was looking for a place where I could really expand my game and play a bigger role on a team that wins,” he said. “Obviously, it was a pretty big risk leaving a Big Ten school after three years and having to sit out a year. I was pretty fortunate to find the right fit.”
More fortunate than he even knew when he made the choice.
Among the reasons he settled on CSU was his relationship with then-coach Tim Miles, who previously had recruited the native of Yankton, S.D., for North Dakota State.
But after last season, Miles departed for Nebraska.
Since Iverson sat out that season because of transfer rules, he in fact never played for the very person he went to play for.
“I was a little worried right away,” he said. “But I just thought when they hired Coach Eustachy I’d be all right, because he’s won everywhere he’s been (402-258 at four previous stops entering this season).
“So I just thought I had to buy in, and if I did that everything would work out. And he’s got me playing the best basketball I’ve ever played.”
Buying in, as it happens, is the very phrase that Haith uses to describe what it’s taken for Oriakhi to flourish at MU, where he transferred a year ago and was immediately eligible since Connecticut was put on probation by the NCAA.
The two have never met before, but Iverson played AAU ball with Oriakhi’s front-court counterpart, Laurence Bowers, who said Iverson was “a load then, (and) he’s a load now.”
Bowers “is a great talent,” Iverson said. “He’s going to be a tough matchup for us, too.”
All of which is prologue to what Bowers said will be “war on the boards with them.”
And the key to winning that vital part of the game, Oriakhi said, is “heart and will.”
And Mizzou can expect the same mentality coming the other way.
“We’ve got to match their intensity from the start,” Iverson said.
That should be a natural for a Rams team featuring five senior starters who lost in the first round of the tournament last season.
“There’s not a whole lot of teams that start that kind of experience,” Iverson said. “So we might not be the most athletic or talented team, but we definitely have the experience.”
Iverson’s also include being part of two NCAA Tournament losses at Minnesota.
“They were good experiences for me, but obviously this year we’re hoping to get an actual win in the tournament,” he said.
As for the way there …
“We think rebounding is going to be huge,” he said.