- Jason King
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NASSAU, Bahamas -- The Missouri basketball team’s most important player never took a shot Thursday. Instead, suspended guard Michael Dixon sat at the end of the bench in a gray sweat suit, watching with little expression as the Tigers defeated Stanford 78-70.
“Probably not,” Frank Haith said when asked if Dixon would play in this week’s Battle 4 Atlantis, the coach’s answer prompting other questions.
Why even bring Dixon to Bahamas? Why waste money on airfare, food and hotel expenses for a player who’s not going to see the court?
“It’s all about teaching,” Haith said. “If I leave him back home, what does that do? I want him to feel [the pain of not playing].”
Missouri fans are hoping Haith’s strategy works.
Because if one thing was obvious Thursday, it was this: Without Dixon, Missouri is a dangerous basketball team that’s completely worthy of its No. 13 national ranking. But with him, the Tigers could be so much more.
They could compete for an SEC title, they could catapult into the top five, they could make the Final Four.
They could be elite.
“We’re not as good now,” Haith said, “as we’re going to be in January and late February.”
The feeling, of course, is that Dixon will be back on the court by then, although it appears that school administrators -- and not Haith -- are the ones calling the shots. The reason for Dixon’s suspension has yet to be reported. Haith will only say that Dixon, who averaged 13.5 points as a junior, “has some things he needs to get done” before he can be reinstated.
The Tigers are talented enough to beat mid-tier teams such as Stanford without Dixon, but they’ll struggle against highly ranked schools such as Louisville -- their likely opponent in Friday’s Battle 4 Atlantis semifinal -- without their gritty guard.
Dixon, who was voted national Sixth Man of the Year last season by some media outlets, is one of the few outside threats on Missouri’s roster. Without him and sharpshooter Jabari Brown -- an Oregon transfer who becomes eligible next month -- the Tigers could be in for more horrendous shooting performances like the one they turned in Thursday’s win over Stanford.
“We’re not going to be very fluid on offense right now,” Haith said. “We don’t have all of our weapons. Mike Dixon and Jabari Brown are offensive weapons.”
In the meantime, Missouri is thriving on an identity completely different than the one that led to a 30 wins last season. While last year’s upperclassmen-laden squad was defined by its chemistry, this team’s strong suits are its physicality and grit.
Missouri had 19 offensive rebounds Thursday and held Stanford to 36.6 percent shooting. The Tigers also forced 18 Cardinal turnovers, and Pressey had four steals.
“Our identity right now is physical toughness, rebounding, playing defense,” Haith said. “Last year’s team didn’t defend. Look at what people are shooting against us right now. We’re defending.
“We had 19 offensive rebounds. At no time last year did we have 19 offensive rebounds. It’s all about understanding who you are and buying into that.”
Indeed, Webster-Chan took a crucial charge late in the game. Bowers, who missed last season with a knee injury, scored a team-high 19 points, but he seemed equally as pleased with his 10 rebounds and two blocks. Ross made up for his poor performance with 11 boards.
Missouri was up 37-34 at intermission. The second-half run that everyone expected out of Stanford? It didn’t come, as the Tigers never relinquished their lead.
“We knew that they were going to try to punch us in the mouth in the second half,” Bowers said, “but we were the ones that came out and delivered the blow.”
The physical, gritty style of play is an entirely new look -- a new brand, if you will -- for Missouri basketball. And it has presented a whole new challenge for Haith, who is doing an excellent job of adapting to the personnel on his roster.
Along with dealing with the absence of Dixon, Haith is trying to incorporate three Division I transfers into the Tigers’ rotation. Alex Oriakhi, who played his first three seasons at Connecticut, started Thursday along with Ross (Auburn) and Keion Bell (Pepperdine). A fourth transfer, Brown, will contend for a starting role when he becomes eligible in December.
“It’s fun,” Haith said. “As a coach, I’m excited about putting it together. We’re always trying to put guys in position where they can be successful. That’s what coaching is. Today, it’s late in the game, you’ve got all these new parts, and yet guys are making plays and executing. That’s something I can build on.”
Especially once Dixon returns to the court.
Whenever that may be.