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Is Mizzou’s Michael Dixon the game’s best sixth man?


Mike Miller

Missouri was struggling Monday night in Austin.

With Marcus Denmon shooting 3-12 from the field, Kim English struggling to get himself open and Phil Pressey turning the ball over, the Tigers needed a spark, and they got it from the man they rely on to be a game-changer. Michael Dixon scored 21 points on 9-10 shooting from the floor, sparking two different runs that push Missouri’s lead into double figures. After Texas made a run and took the lead in the final minute, it was Dixon’s driving layup that won the game for the Tigers.

He may be Missouri’s fourth-leading scorer at 12.1 ppg, but he’s yet to start a game this season, playing 25.1 mpg as the change of pace that Frank Haith uses.

Sometimes Dixon enters in the first two minutes of the game -- or the second half -- and other times he doesn’t see the court until after the first media timeout. But what is certain is that when he enters the game, its to put up points.

“He’s a starter, he started for us his freshman and sophomore year,” Kim English said of Dixon. “And he’s so dangerous because he can initiate us into offense and he can put the ball into the basket. It’s special to have a veteran guy like that coming off the bench.”

Dixon is the perfect change of pace for Haith. Generally speaking, when he enters the game, its to replace Matt Pressey, who is bigger and more athletic, making him more of a defender and a blue-collar presence. Dixon, who is technically a point guard, then joins Matt’s younger brother Phil in the back court. Phil is a distributor through and through, which is a perfect compliment to the score-first mentality for a guy like Dixon.

And while Haith doesn’t want Dixon to rein in that aggressiveness, there are times where he simply wished his streaky junior would allow the game to come to him.

“That’s the biggest thing we’ve always tried to talk to Mike about,” Haith said after Dixon sparked a 28-2 run by scoring 14 of his 16 points in the first half of a win over Texas A&M last week. “Get in the flow of the game, get a sweat going and let it come to you. At times he is a jitterbug. When he gets going like he did tonight, he’s going to take some risks and he’s going to make some plays. And tonight, we needed it.”

What’s interesting about Dixon is that he hasn’t come off the bench. He started eight games and a freshman and 17 as a sophomore. Generally speaking, when you’re a part-time starter as an underclassmen, you expect natural progression to take its course while you move into the starting lineup as an upperclassmen. To his credit, while Dixon assuredly wishes that he was starting -- who doesn’t -- he seems to have embraced his role as the spark plug.

“We got a good team. I just do what I can to help this team,” he said. “I’m not really to worried about anything like that, I just want to win. That’s great and all, I just attribute being good and being on a team like this to W’s.”

Perhaps the transition has been made easier by the fact that his teammates recognize his value to the team.

“Very valuable. He could start on any other team in the nation. He’s like instant offense,” Ricardo Ratliffe said.

Dixon may not be on the court for the opening tip, but for the Tigers to reach their potential they need Dixon to excel in his role off the bench. To date, he has.

Dixon is far from the only supersub in the country this season. Here are some other guys that come off the bench for their teams:

Dion Waiters, Syracuse: Waiters is the most talented player on the Syracuse roster. At this point, that opinion is almost a consensus. There are just so many things that he can do on a basketball court -- he’s a defensive playmaker, he can shoot with range, he can get to the rim and finish in traffic -- that his ability is impossible to ignore. The problem? Waiters is currently sitting behind two upperclassmen in Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche. He did last season as well, a fact that played a major role in Waiters considering a transfer over the summer.

But his mindset has changed. “I was kind of selfish last year,” Waiters told me back in November. “We’re going to have a great team this year and I can’t be the only one that’s unhappy.” As valuable as the 12.3 ppg, 2.6 apg and 2.3 spg that he provides in the 22.5 mpg he plays, its Waiter’s acceptance of his role that has been the difference for the Orange this year.

Pierre Jackson, Baylor: I’m not sure if I’m still allowed to call Jackson a sixth-man. He’s come off the bench in 18 of Baylor’s 21 games this season, but the three games that he has started just so happen to have been the last three games that Baylor has played. I’ll go with it for now, but it may not be justifiable for that much longer.

What makes Jackson so dangerous is this playmaking ability. He’s small -- about 5'10" -- but he’s explosive, he’s aggressive and he’s unafraid of a) driving the lane and elevating amongst the trees and b) missing a shot. At times, that lack of a conscience has cost Baylor. But Jackson has also had a number of games where he has been the difference maker in the second half, not to mention the handful of game-winners he currently has to his name. Jackson is averaging 12.5 ppg and 6.0 apg. Maybe that’s why they stopped bringing him off the bench.

Otto Porter, Georgetown: Porter is not technically a full-time sub, either (he started one game when Markel Starks was hurt), but he plays full-time minutes. A combo-forward, Porter sees most of his action at the four spot. But he’s been so good this season that it is tough for John Thompson III to leave Otto on the bench. Porter averages 28.2 mpg, the third most minutes on the team, while starter Nate Lubick only plays 19.5 mpg. He’s the leading rebounder and has the most offensive rebounds while sitting in second on the team in blocks and steals. Now imagine what happens when he learns how to play offensively.

Ben Brust, Wisconsin: You’d be forgiven if you thought that Brust was a starter. He played 25.9 mpg and is the team’s third-leading scorer at 9.7 ppg. He also has had a couple of big games this season, going for 21 points in a win over BYU and 25 -- while hitting 7-7 from three -- in a win over UNLV. But Brust does, in fact, come off the bench for the Badgers, providing a streaky, but potentially deadly, option along side the always-reliable Jordan Taylor.