Story by The Associated Press
Video by Ryan Williams
Everybody wants to start, Michael Dixon included. Being one of the nation’s top sixth men on one of the nation’s top teams is a pretty good feeling, too.
The junior guard has come off the bench all year for No. 4 Missouri and it hasn’t prevented him from being a major contributor. He’s averaging 12.3 points, best in the nation among players who have no starts, and figures to have a major say in Saturday’s high-profile matchup against No. 6 Baylor (21-3, 8-3 Big 12).
Dixon hit the game-winning layup in a one-point victory at Texas earlier this month and his 30-point effort against William & Mary was the best for a Missouri reserve since 1989. He has scored in double figures in 10 of the last 14 games, and is a good bet to be on the floor at crunch time since he’s the school’s career leading free-throw shooter at 85 percent.
Though it took some getting used to sitting down before tip-off, Dixon has stopped worrying about it. Winning solves all.
The former Mr. Show Me Basketball at Lee’s Summit West High started eight games as a freshman and 17 last season. Dixon didn’t know he’d be a substitute until new coach Frank Haith went over the scouting report before the exhibition opener against Missouri Southern.
“It hurt. I didn’t want to come off the bench. I don’t think anybody does,” Dixon said. “The thing about me is, I love winning. If this is what I have to do for us to be successful, then so be it.”
Missouri (22-2, 9-2) has been surprisingly successful, and with the same five starters all 24 games. Dixon has been overshadowed at point guard by ever-inventive sophomore Phil Pressey, and Haith has elected to keep the Pressey brothers together with senior Matt Pressey starting every game.
Dixon’s satisfaction comes from getting the equivalent of starter time. He is averaging 25.5 minutes, the same as center Ricardo Ratliffe.
Dixon said he’s “content.” Realistic, too.
“From the looks of it, it’s not really going to change anytime soon,” he said. “But this isn’t really about me, it’s about the team.”
Missouri is deep at guard. Dixon is part of a five-man rotation, which so far has allowed the team to overcome shortages elsewhere with only seven players getting consistent minutes. Ratliffe, who leads the NCAA with 75.5 percent shooting, and Steve Moore are the only inside players.
Marcus Denmon leads the team with an 18-point average, and has busted out of a shooting slump by totaling 54 points the last two games.
“We depended on him to get back,” said Kim English, who averages 14 points. “Our team thrives when all six or seven guys are playing well. That’s what makes us dangerous.”
A senior-laden team has made a major adjustment under Haith, who ditched the full-court press in favor of a more controlled approach with focused pressure. Missouri steamrolled most opponents early in the season, and lately has shown a knack for winning tight ones.
“When we have these close games, we’re allowed to run late-game plays and see what we have to do in late-game situations,” Phil Pressey said. “We run them in practice but rarely do you get to run them in the game.”
The Tigers won by one point at Baylor on Jan. 21 and have won the last three by a total of seven points. Denmon scored nine points in a 12-0 run during a 74-71 victory over Kansas last week. The Tigers held off Oklahoma, a team they whipped by 38 points at home, by just three on Monday on the road.
The close calls help keep players grounded.
“Proud peacock today, feather duster tomorrow,” Haith said. “All the pats on the back, if you get caught up in that, it could turn into criticism.”
Missouri has a shot at winning the Big 12 title in its final season before jumping to the SEC, entering Saturday’s game tied with Kansas for the lead. Baylor is a game back after flopping in a 68-54 loss at Kansas on Wednesday, it’s second decisive loss to the Jayhawks.
“There’s no way I thought we’d be 22-2 right now, to be honest,” Haith said. “I want them to enjoy this ride, we’re all enjoying it. But the big picture is, we have a lot of work to do.”