In less than a week, the Missouri Tigers will begin exhibition play, signaling the start of the 2012-2013 basketball season. After the graduation of five seniors off of last season's 30-5 team, second year coach Frank Haith will be fielding a team comprised largely of newcomers.
Missouri returns just two players who played in games a year ago. But both of them, point guards Phil Pressey and Mike Dixon, have each been named as pre-season All-Americans. Early on, Dixon, who was the country's most prolific sixth man a year ago, appears to be one of Missouri's most-improved players, after scoring 13.5 points/game and dishing out 3.3 assists/game off of the bench last season. As a junior, Dixon also posted a 2.1 assist/turnover ratio, and he shot 88% from the FT line. As Missouri's starting point guard last season, Pressey averaged 10.3 points/game, and handed out 6.4 assists/game, while maintaining a 2.6 assist/turnover ratio. Few college defenders can stay in front of either one of them.
"They're pretty good," said Coach Haith, referring to Dixon and
In addition to his starting back court, Coach Haith returns senior Laurence Bowers, who missed all of last season with a knee injury. The 6'8" 227-pound Bowers, who was an All-Big 12 Honorable Mention selection in 2011, as well as being selected to the All-Big 12 Defensive Team that season, used the year on the sidelines to get bigger and stronger, and is looking forward to having his best season.
Coach Haith and his staff, including holdover Tim Fuller, and a pair of new additions, in Dave Leitao and Rick Carter, have filled out their prospective playing rotation with a handful of quality transfers, including 6'9" 255-pound senior center Alex Oriakhi, 6'9" 226-pound junior college transfer Tony Criswell, 6'5" 222-pound junior Earnest Ross, 6'4" 200-pound senior G Keion Bell, and 6'5" 205-pound sophomore G Jabari Brown, who will be eligible to play at the end of the fall semester.
The Tigers have another transfer on their roster, in 6'5" G Jordan Clarkson, who will have to sit out this season per NCAA transfer rules.
Look for Missouri to be a better rebounding team, and better defensively, than they were a year ago. It appears likely that Bowers and Oriakhi will join Dixon and Pressey in the starting line-up, with the multi-talented Ross as the likely fifth starter. That would leave Bell, Brown, once he becomes eligible to play, Criswell, Rosburg, and Webster-Chan to come off of the bench.
From what I've seen of Oriakhi, he's gotten into really good physical condition, and he provides what Coach Haith likes to refer to as a "post presence". He's not the kind of post player that you're going to build your offense around, but he'll do some scoring, and along with what he does best, which is defense and rebounding, the experienced big man will anchor what is likely to be a pretty good defensive squad.
Ross is an exciting player. He's improved as a player during his year on the sidelines. He's developed his body, and he's improved his outside shot. He's a versatile player who does just about everything on the court, and he does it well.
Bell is just an athletic freak, as everyone saw when he jumped over six people for a choreographed dunk during Mizzou Madness. Coach Haith has challenged Bell to become a lock-down defender, a defensive stopper that he can assign to guard the top offensive players in the college game. Bell scored more than 1000 points at Pepperdine before coming to Missouri, and he's used to having the ball in his hands a lot. He's still fitting in to Coach Haith's offensive system, but he recently told me that he loves playing in Missouri's offense, and that it's easy for him to get good shots.
Brown is another exciting player. It may take some time for the team to transition to having Brown on the floor a little more than a month into the season. But with his ability to shoot the basketball from the outside, as well as get to the basket, I expect Brown to have an almost immediate positive impact.
Coach Haith has stated more than once that Criswell has shown himself to be a better scorer than the Missouri staff realized they were getting. Criswell has nice athleticism for his size, and he's been hitting jump shots. I think he'll see quite a bit of floor time playing behind Bowers.
Rosburg is a rugged inside player who appears to be physically ready to play. He'll provide some muscle underneath, and he has shown the ability to put the ball in the basket.
It appears to me that Webster-Chan will get an opportunity to play early in the season, at least until Brown becomes eligible. How he performs will likely determine his role later on. From what I've seen of the lanky freshman, he can guard people, and he's athletic enough and skilled enough to contribute on the offensive end.
Offensively, Missouri appears to have balance, with several players who can score inside or outside. Coach Haith also has some versatility in his line-up, as well as some legitimate size, and I think we may see a number of different line-up combinations, especially early in the season.
Developing team chemistry is one of Coach Haith's primary goals for Missouri during pre-season practice and during the early season games. He's also looking for a playing rotation to become evident, and for team leadership to become established.
The Tigers will receive their biggest early-season test when they travel to the Bahamas over Thanksgiving for the Battle 4 Atlantis pre-season tournament, which is generally recognized as having the strongest filed of any of this year's early tournaments.