Memphis Basketball: Why Michael Dixon Is Final Piece of Puzzle for Tigers

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Memphis Basketball: Why Michael Dixon Is Final Piece of Puzzle for Tigers
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Former Missouri guard Michael Dixon will be allowed to play this season for Memphis. Dixon was the Big 12 Sixth Man of the Year in 2011-12.

News broke on Wednesday on Memphis' official website that Missouri transfer Michael Dixon will be able to play his senior season at Memphis. Dixon, who was booted from Missouri for two rape allegations (neither of which he was ever charged for), received the Dez Wells treatment from the NCAA.

This will be the biggest news of September in college basketball unless P.J. Hairston gets behind the wheel of another rented car. Back in June when Dixon landed at Memphis, I wrote that it was time to take the Tigers seriously again. That was contingent on Dixon being allowed to play.

Memphis has been a nice little story since John Calipari left town and would have been solid this season even without Dixon. Josh Pastner has kept the Tigers relevant by becoming Calipari-lite in terms of recruiting prowess—his 2010 class ranked second to Kentucky, according to Rivals.com—and the core of that class, most of which is gone now, was enough to dominate the weak Conference USA.

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Josh Pastner got his first NCAA tournament win as a head coach last season. His team this year should receive its highest preseason ranking since he took over.

Those recruits gave Pastner some nice pieces to work with over the last three years, but he never had a roster that put much fear in the big boys. 

Dixon changes that. And he brings with him a style of play that can make Memphis different in a scary way. 

Pastner told Jeff Goodman of ESPN.com (Insider) last week that he plans to play four guards often and play fast. That came with a caveat: if Dixon is eligible

Dixon gives Pastner a fourth senior guard to play small ball. Assuming Pastner sticks to his work, Dixon will play next to point guard Joe Jackson with Geron Johnson at the 3 and Chris Crawford as an undersized 4. At the 5 spot, top-20 recruit Austin Nichols will demand a majority of the minutes. 

The Tigers could also play traditionally and not suffer much from a talent standpoint. Sophomore big man Shaq Goodwin would be a worthy starter next to Nichols, and Pastner could bring one of his four guards off the bench. Going small makes a team vulnerable on the defensive end. 

Dixon's last coach, Frank Haith, did not have that flexibility in his first year at Mizzou. When he lost Laurence Bowers to an ACL tear before the season even started, he was forced to go the small-ball route. The result was one of the best offenses college basketball has seen in the last 10 years.

Find that hard to believe for a team that lost to Norfolk State in the opening round of the 2012 NCAA tournament?

Well, statistically, no one has been better than the 2011-12 Missouri Tigers dating back to 2003. That's when Ken Pomeroy started publishing his efficiency numbers, which measure offenses based on points per possession. From 2003 to 2013, no offense scored more efficiently than those Tigers.  

Most Efficient Offenses from 2003-2013
Offensive Efficiency (Raw)
1. Missouri (2011-12) 120.8
2. Ohio State (2010-11) 119.7
3. Florida (2006-07) 118.9
4. Gonzaga (2003-04) 118.3
5. Illinois (2004-05) 118.1

KenPom.com

Missouri's small-ball attack is not easily duplicated, or you would see a bunch of coaches around the country putting a big man on the bench in favor of a guard. Heck, even Haith went back to a traditional lineup last season. 

The key to Missouri's success was that every guard Haith put on the floor could shoot the three, and they all were willing to share the ball. Mizzou's spacing and passing were things of beauty. 

The Tigers turned it over on only 15.4 percent of their possessions (third-best nationally), made 39.8 percent of their threes and led the NCAA in two-point percentage at 57 percent. 

Easy shots lead to high percentages, and that's what the speed and playmaking abilities of Phil Pressey and Dixon created. 

Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports
Joe Jackson is one of the quickest guards in the country. Defenses will have a tough time keeping up with both Jackson and Michael Dixon.

Someone with Pressey's feel and vision could be what Memphis is missing.

Jackson is a better scorer and shooter, but he doesn't have the instincts of Pressey. That doesn't mean he cannot try to replicate what Pressey did, and he will have to be willing to sacrifice some scoring in order to be more of a setup man. 

And it appears Pastner has the other pieces already. 

Missouri's four shooters were surrounded by a capable finisher in Ricardo Ratliffe, who led the nation in field-goal percentage. When Nichols committed to Memphis last November, ESPN.com recruiting analyst Dave Telep wrote (Insider), "Nichols is an efficient big man whom you can run an offense through. He's got skill in the lane, takes care of his area and is reliable." Sounds like Ratliffe.

The major change in style Memphis would need to make to mirror Mizzou's attack would be firing up more threes. Last year, Memphis attempted a three on only 28.6 percent of its field-goal attempts. Missouri shot a three 37.9 percent of the time in 2011-12. 

The team's accuracy warranted more threes. Memphis shot a respectable 37.2 percent from deep last season, and both Geron Johnson and Chris Crawford have the shooting strokes to fill the roles that Marcus Denmon and Kim English played at Mizzou. Johnson was a 35 percent three-point shooter a year ago, and Crawford made 71 threes and shot 39.9 percent from deep. 

USA TODAY Sports
Memphis guard Chris Crawford averaged 10.4 points per game last year.

Dixon can be Dixon, obviously. 

Haith allowed Dixon to be an attacker, using his speed and instincts to pick his spots to score. Dixon is a perfect fit for an offense that Pastner has plenty of experience running after studying under Calipari, the dribble-drive motion.

The principles of the dribble-drive are similar to the one-in, four-out offense that Haith learned from former Orlando Magic coach Stan Van Gundy and ran his first season at Mizzou. 

The reason it worked so well for Haith was that every Missouri player accepted his role. Pastner has Dixon to share with his teammates what it took to get there. 

If Pastner gets his players to buy in, the Tigers have the talent and depth—I haven't even mentioned their depth—to be a top-10 team. 

Missouri was one of the best 10 teams in the country in 2011-12 no matter what happened in the tournament. I watched the loss to Norfolk State from press row and could not believe it happened at the time. I still have a hard time believing it happened. 

Of course, those Tigers didn't lose because their offense suddenly failed them. They lost because they couldn't get a stop. Pastner's team has a history of playing pretty good defense—12th and 24th in KenPom.com's adjusted defensive efficiency the last two seasons. 

Plus, Dixon was not the reason Mizzou had its occasional struggles defensively. He has 120 steals for his career. He's a pest. 

And now, given a second chance by the NCAA, Dixon has put himself in a place to go on the March run that his old Tigers never got to enjoy. 

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