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March 5, 2013

Short but Sweet



From campus to campus, across the country, Senior Night does not change. It is a sappy, emotional sendoff, a show of appreciation for players that have poured countless hours of work into a four or five-year college career. And that will be partially true at Mizzou Arena on Tuesday night as a sellout crowd watches Laurence Bowers play his final game in a Missouri uniform.

"He's a senior senior," head coach Frank Haith said. "He's been terrific. As good a player as he is, he's a great kid and I think he's an ambassador for this University. He's been outstanding his whole career here."



But this Senior Night will be unlike just about any other sendoff--at Mizzou or anywhere else.

"It's gonna be a little different senior night," Haith said.

Bowers will play his 88th game at Mizzou Arena. Keion Bell and Alex Oriakhi will play their 16th. Each transferred to Missouri for their final year of eligibility. Bell came from Pepperdine and sat out while practicing with the team in the 2011-12 season. Oriakhi arrived on campus less than nine months ago after receiving an NCAA waiver to transfer from Connecticut because the Huskies were banned from playing in the NCAA Tournament.

"When you have a transfer that's been here one year, can you really embrace being a Mizzou Tiger?" Haith asked. "I will say this about both those guys: I think they've embraced this community."

"Mizzou is definitely special to me," Oriakhi said. "I feel like I've been going here four years as far as the coaching staff and fans. It's definitely been a great experience."

"Although I've only been here for one year it doesn't feel like that at all," echoed Bell. "The people here have embraced me and have embraced all the incoming transfers and so has the coaching staff. Even though I've only been here a short amount of time, it kind of feels like I've been here my whole career."



That Bell and Oriakhi ended up at Missouri was part of Haith's master plan when he took over the Tigers in the spring of 2011. His first Missouri team would feature seven seniors (Bowers would have been gone after last year were it not for a knee injury that sidelined him for the season), one junior and two sophomores.

"The program was in good shape and we had really good players here, but we were top-heavy. We had a lot of seniors and then we didn't have a freshman class," Haith said. "To have a program you need to balance your classes out. For us to go out and sign a bunch of freshmen wouldn't have been fair to those guys at that time because they're probably not going to be good enough to play at that level."

So Haith targeted not specific players, but players of specific ages. He wanted a senior to join a class that would include Bowers and, at the time, Michael Dixon. Enter Keion Bell.

"I was recruited by the coaching staff, they were real familiar with me because coach Haith originally recruited me at Miami and I was recruited by Tim Fuller at his previous job," Bell said. "When they heard about me transferring, they reached out to me. I was in constant communication with them, came up here on a visit and it just felt like the right place to be."


Bell had a couple of other schools, including Texas A&M, on his list. But he needed just one official visit before deciding to transfer to Mizzou.

"I've been through the recruiting process and I know that coaches can tell you a lot of things and what the coaches here were telling me seemed genuine," he said. "I didn't feel the need to take any other visits. It felt like the perfect place."

Haith wanted a player with two years left to play. He landed Earnest Ross, providing a home when Ross opted to leave Auburn. He needed a three-year player, which he found when Jabari Brown transferred from Oregon.

"Once I got my release, they reached out to my AAU coach and I talked to them after that," Brown said.

After that, well, sometimes it's better to be lucky than good.

"We had one (scholarship) late," Haith said. "A lot of people didn't have one late for Alex. Did I know Alex was leaving? No, we just had one and it just so happened it worked out."

Oriakhi only received a waiver to transfer and play immediately when the NCAA banned UCONN from postseason play in what would have been his senior season. So he called up Phil Pressey, a childhood friend.

"When I made that move to transfer I just told him to talk to the coaches, I'm thinking about coming here," Oriakhi recalled. "Once I got my release, my phone was just blowing up with a whole bunch of coaches. I knew it came down to Kentucky or Missouri, but at the end of the day I wanted to play with Phil so I made that decision based on that."

And just like that, Haith had remade his roster. The Tigers have four freshmen on the roster. Brown is the lone sophomore, but he will join fellow transfer Jordan Clarkson in next year's junior class. Ross, Pressey and Tony Criswell are juniors. And Bowers, Bell and Oriakhi make up one of the nation's most unique senior classes.



On a night of strange twists and storylines, their final home game will come against the man responsible in some way for all three being at Mizzou. Current Arkansas head coach Mike Anderson recruited Bowers out of high school. He rebuilt the Tiger program. But he also left Haith the mess of a scholarship situation, signing no freshmen in a class that featured B.J. Young, Ben McLemore, Bradley Beal and Otto Porter all playing their high school hoops within just a few hours of Columbia and forcing Haith to go the patchwork route to piece together a roster.

"I knew we would have a chance to have a good team," Haith said of year one. "But I didn't want us to fall off to the point we just went bottom out in one year. That was the reason we did it. We wanted to establish a program here."

Bowers will certainly get the loudest ovation on senior night. He has been a part of 135 games as a Tiger, winning 98 of them (and that doesn't count the 35 last season for which he turned into Mizzou's biggest cheerleader). But Bell and Oriakhi both look forward to their final games in front of their new home crowd.

"I can't tell you till I'm out there," Oriakhi said. "I know it will be emotional because this place has been very good to me. I don't know how I'm gonna handle it."

"The thing that I'm looking forward most to is being able to see my mom and getting the chance to walk with her," Bell said. "You know how moms can be. Especially, me, I'm an only child so my mom, me and her are like connected at the hip and have been since I came out.

"It's gonna be a big deal for me, but it's gonna be an even bigger deal for her."

On Tuesday night, two of the shortest careers in Mizzou history will come to a close. There is still much to be written about the lone go-round as Tigers for Bell and Oriakhi. But for both, their final chapter has become not just part of their story, but they say the most important part.

"You would ask me that," Oriakhi says with a laugh when asked which school he'll list first years from now when he tells people he was a college basketball player. "I'm gonna say Mizzou, man. I'm gonna say Mizzou. Other people might not like that, but oh well."

"Obviously Missouri," Bell said with no hesitation. "I've had some of my best times here."

One more will come Tuesday night.



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