Update: Twitter user Jake Books reminds us that the SEC's recent rule disallowing schools to pick up immediate, one-year transfers also applies to basketball. But that applies to players who have already graduated...and Oriakhi hasn't, so either way, I'm confused.
Let me first address the criticisms that this is all baseless speculation by making one thing clear; this is all basically baseless speculation.
All we know at this point is that Alex Oriakhi, starter for the Connecticut Huskies and former top 25 recruit, has suggested that he'll leave UConn after his junior year. His decision is tied to the team's upcoming postseason ban, which would go into effect in 2013. His father suggests that the big man will be leaving regardless of the university's appeal of that ruling, leaving the big man as a Russell Wilson style free agent in the college game.
Oriakhi hasn't publicly mentioned which schools he's interested in for his next stop. Neither has his father, who often speaks for the young athlete. However, looking across the NCAA landscape, there's one destination that seems to be a great fit for UConn's power forward/center - Vanderbilt.
Alex Oriakhi Jr. is a legitimate big man prospect (6'9", 240 lbs) who hasn't yet realized his full potential on the court. He's a brute on the interior who takes up space, pulls down rebounds, and blocks shots. While he's a solid athlete, he's still got miles left to go to become an effective offensive option. More importantly, he's also shown the willingness to improve all aspects of his game.
Fortunately, Vandy has plenty of scholarships opening up, a gaping hole in their frontcourt, and a recent track record of developing big men with potential. Oriakhi shares several similar traits with the team's graduating center, Festus Ezeli. Both have the size and athleticism to play in the NBA, but both needed plenty of coaching and experience to unlock these talents on the court.
Though Ezeli regressed a bit as a senior thanks to knee injuries, there's no doubt that his time at Vanderbilt improved his play considerably. Ezeli went from being a shot blocker and black hole on offense to a two-way player who could score reliably in the post in his time under coach Kevin Stallings. In Nashville, Oriakhi would have access to that same staff and be the focus of a shallow core of big men for the Commodores.
The 'Dores head into 2012-2013 with a depleted front line. Starters Ezeli and Lance Goulbourne will have graduated along with sixth man and do-everything big man Steve Tchiengang. 6'11" center Josh Henderson will be a redshirt sophomore, and while he looked good in short spurts in 2012, his ascent to major playing time was limited by a foot injury early in the season. Behind him, Shelby Moats and James Siakam will battle for minutes at power forward, though both are a bit undersized for the position.
If the NCAA's ruling sticks, Oriakhi won't have to sit out a year due to transferring. He would be eligible to suit up for the 2012-2013 season. If John Jenkins stays in Nashville (a very big if, but a big-man reinforcement would be a significant reason to come back to Memorial Gym), then the Commodores' rebuilding year would go from NIT expectations to NCAA Tournament ones. While Vanderbilt wouldn't be a powerhouse, a core of Kedren Johnson, Jenkins, and Oriakhi would give the 'Dores a team that could sneak into the national polls.
Vanderbilt, and specifically head coach Kevin Stallings, have had luck with BCS-conference transfers in the past. Two of the starters on this team's 2007 Sweet Sixteen run came to Nashville after spending their first two years at high-level programs. Derrick Byars, who went on to become the SEC Player of the Year as a senior, transferred from Virginia. Ross Neltner, a streaky forward who could be counted on to deliver against LSU and Kentucky, came from the Tigers at the same time.
Could Oriakhi handle the academic pressure of Vanderbilt? He'd only have to spend his senior year of studies in the classroom, and he worked through a 3.6 GPA at UConn as a junior. Academically, he seems like a good fit.
Does any of this mean that Oriakhi is even considering Vanderbilt? Not at all. But it's tough to overlook how well the two would fit together. Vanderbilt needs a big man not only to fill a void on the court but to address what would be a lack of senior leadership behind a possibly-departing Jenkins. Oriakhi would have the opportunity to make an immediate impact in Nashville while receiving the coaching that turned Festus Ezeli from a 6'11" soccer player into a legitimate center.
Oriakhi's transfer may be a hail mary for Vanderbilt, and it may be ultimately meaningless if John Jenkins decides to jump to the NBA. Still, I'd be surprised if Kevin Stallings and his crew weren't getting in touch with the Oriakhi family as soon as the NCAA says it's possible. The big man could be the difference between a rebuilding year and a bridge year to the Parker/Johnson era. For a team that may be heading into 2012-2013 without a major win on the recruiting trail, getting a transfer of Alex Oriakhi's caliber would be a significant boost.