Details of 'The Meeting' Called by Alex Oriakhi
UConn's intense practice the day after its regular-season ending loss to Notre Dame last season will go down in the annals of program history.
The way Jim Calhoun and others have described it, that practice is what kick-started the team's miraculous, 11-game run to Big East and NCAA tournament championships.
Could a players-only meeting called by Alex Oriakhi before Friday's practice yield a similar season turnaround? No one's suggesting the Huskies are going to go unbeaten the rest of the way, but everyone involved believes the emotional meeting will have a big impact. It certainly appeared to in Saturday's whitewash of an admittedly slumping, shorthanded Seton Hall.
Here's what Oriakhi and his teammates are saying about 'The Meeting':
“I told guys, ‘It really hurts not to make the tournament,'" Oriakhi said. "We weren’t playing together, so I told guys I’m willing to give up my minutes, I don’t care anymore. I don’t care if I’m on the bench, I’ll be the biggest cheerleader, I just want to win. When I said that, you could see in the guys’ eyes, they really bought into it. I said, ‘Either we’re in or we’re out.’ Everybody said we’re in. I think that really helped. It’s crazy when you change everybody’s mindset, what can happen.”
"I just told guys, I apologize for being selfish, too much thinking about my minutes, this and that. I think it’s what we needed. My freshman year, we didn’t have that. If I’m the captain of the team, I have to take responsibility of what happens, whether I’m playing or not.”
Oriakhi said his parents, Alex and Angela, as well as assistant coach Kevin Freeman were all pleading with him to call a team meeting.
“If I’m hearing it from all different directions, I’m wrong if I don’t," he said. "I really think that meeting was all the difference in the world. It’s crazy what a few words will do.”
Oriakhi isn't necessarily a natural leader, he admits. But ...
“That’s what this team needs, that’s what I have to do. I’m new to this, as well. I’ve always been the guy in the backseat. It’s definitely something new to me, I’m willing to do it, though.”
He said Roscoe Smith also addressed the team during the meeting.
"He said he wanted to apologize for being selfish, as well, worrying about minutes. He told us, ‘When we win, we all look good.’ I asked him, ‘How many points did you score in the national championship game?’ He said, ‘None.’ I said, ‘Do you care?’ He said, ‘No.’ When guys heard that, they all bought into it. I looked into everybody’s eyes, and you could see they were willing to make a change. Guys bought into that, and it really, really showed on the court.”
The meeting went down right after George Blaney had held a meeting of his own with Oriakhi, Jeremy Lamb and Shabazz Napie.
“That’s what leaders do," Blaney said of Oriakhi. "That’s a good job.”
UConn players agreed:
“It was a good meeting," said Jeremy Lamb. "He really got serious with us. If he talks, aother people got stuff off their minds. We just told everybody we needed everybody on the team. In these hard times, everybody’s got to come together. It really meant a lot to the team. I appreciate him for doing that.”
Added Ryan Boatright: “It was real emotional. Alex and the upperclassmen felt like they had to get some stuff off their chest. Being a freshman, I just sat back and listened to what everybody had to say. We had a great practice, and it carried over to the game.”
We'll have some video shortly ...
A few more details from today:
*** Blaney said he spoke with Calhoun after the game, and that Calhoun watched the game with the volume turned down so that he could focus on the team's energy.
"He felt that Alex was the key to the first half," Blaney said.
He added: "There was a little bit of jump in his voice that wasn’t there this morning or yesterday. I was happy we were able to make him feel better.”
*** About the only excitement in the second half (aside from some thunderous Andre Drummond dunks) came late in the game, when Napier and SHU's Jordan Theodore started jawing after Theodore was called for a foul on Napier.
“He said Jordan was fouling him the whole possession," Boatright reported. "I guess when he went for the ball, he kinda scratched his neck. They were just tangled up. Just two dudes with emotion going on. They shook hands when we came out of our timeout."
However, SHU coach Kevin Willard wasn't pleased with the call (or, in particular, referee Gene Steratore) and was ejected from the game after getting consecutive T's.
Willard didn't mince words afterwards:
"I thought the refs called a good game. To be honest with you, there is one of them I don't get along with. I wanted to wish him a happy Valentine's Day. He didn't like that, and that was the end of that ... I don't mind getting blown out. I do have an issue when the refs enjoy the blow out. And I don't think they should be smiling or enjoying one team getting their butt kicked and another team not ... That's what I saw."
*** New Haven's Freddie Wilson, a Hillhouse product and Seton Hall frosh, scored just two points in 20 minutes but is making strides with the Pirates.