Off bench, Dixon among Tigers’ top contributors

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

they’ve done it 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 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.”

AP Sports Writer Jeffrey Latzke in Oklahoma City contributed to

this report.