COLUMBIA — Michael Dixon Jr. is not an average freshman.
Dixon, a guard on the Missouri men’s basketball team, exudes confidence on the court, rarely looking like a player experiencing the thrill of a big crowd and tougher competition. During the Braggin’ Rights rivalry game against Illinois, Dixon not only handled the pressure of starting, but had his best game of the season.
“He makes big plays down the stretch,” Missouri guard Kim English said of Dixon. “He made some huge free throws at Texas Tech and he made some big shots today when we were in a drought.”
But heading into Saturday afternoon’s 95-80 win over Oklahoma State, not even Dixon was above one of the toughest adjustments a freshman can make — the transition to conference play. Dixon, who says nothing scares him, appeared to be experiencing his first nightmare.
“The competition is picking up and it’s tough to adjust as a first year player,” Dixon said. “But I still just stay confident and don’t worry about that.”
Dixon was a relative unknown to nonconference opponents like Vanderbilt or Georgia, and he took advantage of that, averaging nine points a game. However, he has had trouble with what Missouri coach Mike Anderson likes to call "family play," or Big 12 play. Teams have so much tape on the Tigers that they know every move Dixon likes to make. They have been able to stop Dixon’s deadly crossover dribble, and hindered his ability to penetrate the lanes forcing him to become a jump shooter.
“I knew it was going to be tough, but I feel like I’m a confident enough player to overcome that,” Dixon said. “It’s just the ups and downs of college basketball and I think I’m adjusting to that good.”
Anderson said he wasn’t surprised by the guard’s struggles. Not even the super freshman could avoid the difficulties of Big 12 play. He was averaging just five points a game and played a season-low six minutes in the opener against Kansas State because of foul trouble trying to keep up with junior Jacob Pullen.
“Welcome to the Big 12,” Anderson said. “It’s a lesson. Nonconference is different and I think there's an urgency that just takes place in conference play. You got to find your way. That’s what all the young guys do.”
However, Saturday afternoon Dixon appeared to have finally made the adjustment. The freshman went back to looking like an experienced veteran on the court. Coming off the bench he was confident in his shot, and never hesitated even as an Oklahoma State defender was jumping toward him. He made all four of his 3-point attempts in the game and finished with 12 points, his highest in Big 12 play. On defense he was key in helping forward Keith Ramsey trap Cowboy guard Keaton Page in the backcourt, causing a crucial turnover in the second half.
“(Big 12 play is) not a shock at all, it was for us, but he’s a different kind of freshman” English said. “I didn’t even notice he was struggling.”
Dixon said it was the chemistry he has with sophomore guard Marcus Denmon that has helped him transition. The two grew up together in Kansas City, and have known each other since elementary school. Dixon said Denmon has been looking out for him all season giving him words of wisdom and helping him on the court. Without the help of Denmon’s dribble penetration Saturday, he may still be struggling.
“Everybody stayed confident with me and that’s what you got to do,” Dixon said. “Marcus was actually the one getting me open today for the most part, and I was just fortunate to get a good look and hit the shot.”
Like a veteran, Dixon has refused to let his play in the Big 12 frustrate him. However, even he admits Saturday afternoon helped.
"I think it's about weathering storms," Dixon said. "I think I'm capable of playing with Big 12 players, and I think we as a team have a confidence together and that's how we come together."