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Tigers coach Frank Haith takes a contender to the SEC
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The first practices of college basketball season begin in mid-October, and Athlon Sports 2012-13 preview annuals are starting to arrive on newsstands all over the country.
To prepare for the start of college basketball season, we will preview one team each weekday, counting down to the first official day of basketball practice on Oct. 15, or for some teams on Oct. 12.
We continue our countdown with a preview of No. 16 Missouri.
After turning Missouri into the biggest surprise of the college basketball season — at least until its own shocking loss to No. 15 seed Norfolk State in the NCAA Tournament — coach Frank Haith and the Tigers are starting over.
Missouri bid farewell to five seniors, including All-American Marcus Denmon and all-conference selections Kim English and Ricardo Ratliffe, from last year’s team, which won 30 games while relying on a seven-man rotation. It also said good-bye this offseason to the Big 12 as it officially joined the SEC.
Guards Phil Pressey and Mike Dixon are the only Tigers who have logged minutes for Haith, so the team will have a distinctly different look as it wades into its new league. The Tigers regain the services of forward Laurence Bowers, who missed the ’11-12 season with a knee injury, and welcome in five recruits and four transfers. Missouri should be able to give opponents a lot of different looks, as well. That has Haith excited.
“We can play big, we can play small,” he says. “Having a little bit of ability to adjust to who you’re playing against, I think that’s something we could not do (last) year.”
He’ll try to use it to his advantage as he attempts to keep the Tigers in the thick of the conference race and in line for a fifth straight NCAA Tournament berth.
Related: Q&A with Phil Pressey on becoming a better point guard, new faces at Mizzou
Few imagined Missouri would have as much success as it did playing without Bowers last season after he tore the ACL in his left knee in early October. When last healthy, he was the Tigers’ second-leading scorer (11.6 ppg) and top rebounder (6.1 rpg), a versatile forward with good shot-blocking skills, a dependable midrange jumper and a knack for making highlight plays around the rim. He’s been allowed to take his recovery slowly and is confident he can regain his old form.
Haith plans on having Bowers mentor freshmen big men Ryan Rosburg and Stefan Jankovic and junior college transfer Tony Criswell. With those four players, Haith already would have more options up front than a year ago when he was forced to start English out of position.
But the spring brought an unexpected gift in 6’9”, 255-pound transfer Alex Oriakhi, a three-year starter at Connecticut who averaged 9.6 points and 8.7 rebounds while anchoring the Huskies’ frontline during their national championship season in 2011.
“He’s a rim protector, and that’s something we needed,” Dixon says.
The ability of the 5’11” Pressey to break down the defense off the dribble and find the open man didn’t just benefit Ratliffe but the entire team last season when the Tigers averaged a Big 12-best 80.4 points. But they must replace two lethal wing scorers in Denmon and English, who combined to average 32.2 points while shooting 42.9 percent from 3-point range.
Earnest Dixon (13.5 ppg), the team’s sixth man last season, seems poised to step into the starting lineup and assume a bigger part of the scoring load. Ross, a 6’5” transfer from Auburn, could fill the other open spot on the perimeter. He led those Tigers in scoring (13.1 ppg) and rebounding (6.6 ppg) as a sophomore, though Missouri needs him to become a more consistent shooter. His size and strength will give Haith the versatility to use a four-guard lineup when he sees fit.
Keion Bell, an athletic combo guard who averaged 16.4 points over three seasons at Pepperdine, could occupy Dixon’s old role off the bench. Jabari Brown, a former 5-star recruit who appeared in two games at Oregon, should also add punch to the Tigers’ offense when he becomes eligible in December.
Missouri players believe they won’t just have more bodies this season but also more talent than they did a year ago. But to have a chance to meet or exceed last season’s accomplishments, they will also have to match the chemistry so integral to that success.
The additional options could make it harder for players to fit into defined roles, but if Haith can get them to play together, the Tigers should be a more well-rounded team. The tandem of Bowers and Oriakhi figures to make them better at protecting the rim, and their improved depth should help them extend their defense on the perimeter.
With Pressey, one of the nation’s top playmakers, directing the offense, Missouri should also generate enough points to contend in a league race led by reigning national champion Kentucky.