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Top 25 Countdown: No. 5 Missouri Tigers

Oct 29, 2012, 9:00 AM EST

spt-120102-philpressey Getty Images

Throughout the month of October, CollegeBasketballTalk will be rolling out our previews for the 2012-2013 season. Check back at 9 a.m. and just after lunch every day, Monday-Friday, for a new preview item.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To look at the rest of the Top 25, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

Last Season: 30-4, 14-4 Big 12 (2nd); Lost in the Opening Round to Norfolk State

Head Coach: Frank Haith

Key Losses: Marcus Denmon, Kim English, Ricardo Ratliffe, Steve Moore

Newcomers: Alex Oriakhi, Jabari Brown*, Keion Bell, Earnest Ross, Dominique Bull, Negus Webster-Chan, Stefan Jankovic, Ryan Rosburg

Projected Lineup:

- G: Phil Pressey, Jr.
G: Michael Dixon, Sr.
F: Jabari Brown, So.
F: Laurence Bowers, Sr.
C: Alex Oriakhi, Sr.
Bench: Keion Bell, Sr.; Earnest Ross, Sr.; Negus Webster-Chan, Fr.; Dominique Bull, Fr.

Outlook: Missouri is going to be a very different team this season. Playing without Laurence Bowers last season, the Tigers were forced to go small. They surrounded Phil Pressey, arguably the nation’s premiere with a trio of knock-down shooters — Marcus Denmon, Kim English, Mike Dixon — capable of going for 25 on a given night. They were lucky because English, a 6-foot-6 shooting guard, was tough enough to defend and rebound in the paint, giving them a mismatch on the offensive end of the floor that they were able to consistently exploit.

The problem, however, was that while the Tigers thrived offensively — the were the most efficient offensive team in the country a year ago, they simply survived on the defensive end. They struggled to force their opponents into tough shots, they weren’t great on the glass and they didn’t have a shot blocker to protect the rim.

This year’s team should be much improved on the defensive end of the floor. It starts with Pressey and Dixon, when he gets back from his suspension, who are both terrific on-ball defenders that can get out and pressure, man-to-man, in the half-court. Transfers Jabari Brown, who will get eligible in December, and Keion Bell are both big, extremely athletic wings while Earnest Ross is versatile enough to guard either forward position.

But the real difference makers defensively are Laurence Bowers and Alex Oriakhi. Bowers, before he tore his ACL, was considered by many to be the best player on last year’s Missouri team. He certainly was considered the best defender, as he’s an athletic and lanky, 6-foot-8 power forward that can defend any position on the floor. He’s a defensive playmaker as well, the kind of guy that can block shots around the rim and jump a passing lane. Oriakhi is the tie that binds for this group. While he struggled last year with UConn, Oriakhi was an overwhelming dominant interior presence during UConn’s run to the 2011 national title. He can block shots, he rebounds the ball on both ends of the floor, and he’s a better scorer in the post than he gets credit for. Don’t be surprised to see him average 12 points, 10 boards and 2.5 blocks this season.

While Missouri may flourish defensively this year, they will undoubtedly be taking a step back on the offensive end. That’s what happens when three of the most efficient scorers in the country graduate. But Missouri isn’t exactly without weapons this year. Dixon may end up averaging 16 or 17 points this year. Brown was a top 30 recruit known for his ability to score on the wing, while Bell averaged nearly 20 per game while at Pepperdine. Ross, Bowers and Oriakhi are all players that can get double-figures on given night.

But perhaps more importantly, there’s Pressey. As we mentioned, Flip is one of the best creators in the country, and there are few point guards that are as adept at making their teammates better as him. It’s pretty easy for Oriakhi to score, for example, when the ball is dropped off to him in front of the rim. The other point that needs to be made is that while neither Ross nor Bowers are the kind of shooter than English was, both are skilled and perimeter-oriented enough to play the same role — as a stretch-four, so to speak — offensively.

In other words, while the people playing to positions are different this season, the Tigers will be running essentially the same attack. With a new-and-improved defense and Pressey running the show, there’s legitimacy to the argument that Missouri can contend for the SEC title.

Predictions?: The key for the Tigers are going to be how all of the transfers come together. Only three players projected to be in the Tiger rotation have played for Missouri before, and one of those three — Bowers — sat out the only season that Haith has been in Columbia with a knee injury. Those are a lot of new faces to try and turn into a cohesive unit, but that’s precisely what Haith did last year with the Tigers. He took a team that was admittedly coming apart at the seams and turned them into a group that won 30 games and the Big 12 tournament. My money is on the Tigers repeating that success

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.