Missouri Basketball: The 5 Biggest Issues That Will Define the Tigers' Season

Corey RuddContributor IIINovember 18, 2012

Missouri Basketball: The 5 Biggest Issues That Will Define the Tigers' Season

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    One year removed from the school's first 30-win season, head coach Frank Haith and his Missouri Tigers are receiving a lot of notoriety heading into their first season in the SEC. 

    Haith's Tigers were picked to finish third in the SEC conference before the season began and junior point guard Phil Pressey has been selected as the league's Preseason Player of the Year.  

    Expectations are high in Columbia, even with the loss of five seniors, including NBA draft pick guards Kim English and Marcus Denmon. Anytime a team sees that much turnover and change, there are bound to be questions. 

    Just how will Haith's bunch be able to live up to these lofty expectations?

    So far, Missouri has played well, beating three cupcakes to begin the season.  

    The competition will heat up quickly this week as Mizzou plays in the Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament in the Bahamas over Thanksgiving. Haith will learn a lot about his team and Mizzou should learn pretty quickly where they stand after playing Stanford on Thursday.

    Here are five issues that must be answered and resolved not only in the Bahamas, but also throughout the season if the Tigers hope to repeat last year's regular-season success during their first season in the SEC.  

How Long Will Michael Dixon Be Suspended?

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    Coming into the season, many experts were excited about the prospects of senior guard Michael Dixon, Jr. playing alongside point guard Phil Pressey more often. 

    Unfortunately, due to a suspension related to academic reasons, Dixon has yet to see the court for Mizzou and there does not look to be a timetable available for his return. 

    The loss of Dixon for any extended period of time as the schedule ratchets up for Mizzou will hurt.  

    Dixon is a spark plug  He was possibly the best sixth man in the country last season, averaging 13.5 points and 3.3 assists per game while not starting a single game. 

    Dixon relentlessly attacks the basket with reckless abandon. He also can pop from long range on a whim, canning 50 from beyond the arc last season.

    His speed in the open court makes him dangerous and teams must always prepare for a one-man fast break. 

    So far, Haith has gotten production in Dixon's absence by using freshman Negus Webster-Chan.  

    At some point, not having Dixon around will hurt the Tigers and the senior guard must get his books organized so he can get back on the court soon. 

Can All of the Transfers and Freshmen Develop the Right Chemistry?

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    One of the trademarks of last year's team was the way the group played together as a cohesive unit. 

    This year's Mizzou team clearly is deeper, bigger and likely more talented than last year's team, but can they duplicate the chemistry that made the Tigers so dangerous last season?

    Among the newcomers is senior center Alex Oriakhi, who won a National Championship with UConn earlier in his career. Oriakhi has played well through the first three games and is leading the Tigers in rebounding, pulling down an eye-popping 11.7 boards per game

    Oriakhi gives Mizzou a presence in the middle on both ends of the floor, but he is not the only impact transfer that will need to get comfortable wearing a Mizzou uniform. 

    Guard Keion Bell has seemed timid thus far offensively despite having a reputation of being a top-flight scorer during his time at Pepperdine. 

    Meanwhile, forward Earnest Ross has already adapted well and looks to be finding a roll as a spot-up shooter and garbage man on the boards as a regular in Haith's rotation. 

    As previously mentioned, Webster-Chan has provided meaningful and encouraging minutes during the absence of Dixon, but another freshman is in the mix as well.  

    Freshman forward Stefan Jankovic has seen more playing time than most expected and should be a regular contributor off the bench. 

    Haith has loads of weapons and will need to have all of those weapons positioned in the right spot. Haith's first test will come against Stanford and it should be clear very quickly on Thursday whether Haith's efforts this offseason have created another close-knit bunch.

How Does Jabari Brown Fit into the Equation?

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    Mizzou clearly already has a load of talented players new to the program and Haith is getting each of them work.  Eight players are currently averaging over 13 minutes a game through Mizzou's first three contests. 

    While Mizzou looks to be deep now, they will become even deeper when Dixon returns and yet another transfer gets added to the bunch. 

    Sophomore Jabari Brown will be eligible to see the floor at the end of the semester. After being the No. 19 nationally ranked recruit in his class, Brown left Oregon after just two games to join the program at Mizzou. 

    With an already crowded bench, where does Brown fit into the equation?

    Brown may be the most talented and athletic of all the newcomers wearing black and gold this season and could very well push Bell, Ross and Webster-Chan for playing time once eligible. 

    The addition of Brown will only continue to clog the Mizzou lineup, but the wing player could also give Mizzou yet another explosive scorer in the open floor. 

    Haith may be spreading the minutes around evenly through Mizzou's first three games and it will be interesting to see if the trend continues once the competition heats up.

    The addition of Brown guarantees that some minutes will be cut for key players as Brown is good enough to start for nearly any SEC team right now. He is that good and will have an immediate impact once eligible.

Can Phil Pressey Live Up to the Expectations?

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    Pressey is absolutely the quarterback of the Mizzou offense, but anytime a player receives accolades, it is interesting to see how the player responds.  

    So far, so good for Pressey.

    Through Mizzou's first three wins, Pressey is averaging 15.3 points and 4.7 assists per game. Compare this to his numbers as a sophomore when Pressey averaged 10.3 points and 6.4 assists per game. 

    It is a small sample size, but Pressey's assists are noticeably down, which could be attributed to the fact the guard has been more aggressively scoring the ball.  

    Pressey is clearly the playmaker on the Mizzou roster.  He is the engine that makes the offense run.

    If Mizzou hopes to approach the 30 wins of a season ago, Pressey will have to live up to the expectations of being the Preseason SEC Player of the Year. He is the one who will help all of the newcomers develop roles and get comfortable within the offense.  

    Pressey has a lot of pressure on his back.  He must get the Tigers organized and playing with the same tenacity and guts they displayed regularly last season.

    If anyone can do it, "Flip" can. He is armed with talent, quickness, charisma and experience, and should be ready to lead Mizzou and live up to the hype. 

How Will Mizzou Adapt to the SEC?

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    Last year, Mizzou played in the familiar Big 12.

    Now in the SEC, where do the Tigers stack up?

    As mentioned, the coaches picked Missouri to finish third in the conference, but preseason polls rarely play out as originally drawn up. 

    Mizzou no longer has to mess with Kansas anymore, but new rivalries will form quickly. 

    Mizzou will have to compete with traditional SEC powers like Kentucky and Florida. The Tigers will need to stave off hungry and talented teams like Tennessee and Vanderbilt.

    Finally, there is always the natural rivalry that will almost certainly form with Missouri's neighbors to the south. It almost seems inevitable that Arkansas and Missouri fill form a bitter rivalry in basketball, especially considering former Mizzou coach Mike Anderson runs the show Fayetteville. 

    Mizzou should fit in nicely in the SEC.  They should immediately become one of the better programs in the league and should regularly compete near the top of the conference for years to come. 

    This season, Mizzou matches up nicely with the two favorites, Kentucky and Florida. Mizzou has the size, depth and speed to play with both teams.

Conclusion: Expect Mizzou to Answer the Bell

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    Every program will have questions that need to be answered as a new season begins.  

    In that regard, Frank Haith is just like many other coaches across the country. 

    One luxury that Haith enjoys, unlike some others, is that that none of the questions surrounding the Tigers this season have anything to do with depth, size, moxy, leadership or talent. 

    This year's Tigers are armed and ready for yet another magical season and are built to go much further in the NCAA tournament than they did last year. 

    If Haith can get Michael Dixon back on the floor, get all of his transfers and freshmen playing the game together and have his point guard lead his team into a new league successfully, Mizzou should be prepared to possibly top last season. 

    Repeating a 30-win season is tough to do, but those sort of predictions come with high expectations.