First-year coach Frank Haith has a tendency to liken his Missouri players to current NBA players.
Haith has mentioned professional counterparts for junior guard Mike Dixon (Dallas Mavericks guard Jason Terry) and senior forward Ricardo Ratliffe (Cleveland Cavaliers forward Antawn Jamison). But the comparison mentioned most often by Haith pertains to sophomore guard Phil "Flip" Pressey, who reminds Haith of former Texas Longhorn T.J. Ford.
"With Phil, I'm not saying he's T.J. Ford, but he's pretty doggone good and I think he can handle (the point guard role)," Haith said. "(I'm) saying, look, you (have) to take ownership and when things get ragged, when we take bad shots, you can't be the one doing it. And you've got to get us back in play."
Haith coached Ford from 2001 to 2003 during his days as an assistant under Texas coach Rick Barnes. The comparisons between the two guards are plentiful: both are under-sized, freakishly fast and masterful with the ball. Those Longhorn teams went as far as Ford could carry them, which was as far as the Final Four.
Ford was named 2003 Naismith College Player of the Year, averaging 15 points and 7.7 assists per game while shooting 40 percent from the field.
Although Pressey's statistics are a notch below Ford's, this year's Tigers are trending the same as Ford's Texas teams did: as Pressey goes, so does Missouri.
In Missouri's five conference wins, the 5-foot-10-inch, 175-pound Texas native has averaged 12.5 points per game and 5.8 assists per game on 46 percent shooting.
Texas A&M coach Billy Kennedy had similar compliments, labeling the point guard the difference-maker in Missouri's 70-51 victory over the Aggies on Jan. 16.
Pressey has not been without his struggles. In the team's two losses at Kansas State and Oklahoma State, he averaged six less points and half as many assists per game on 26 percent shooting than his totals from MU's victories.
In those five victories, Pressey has turned the ball over on just 10 occasions. In the team's pair of losses, he's turned the ball over seven times.
"I think we sometimes forget he is still only a sophomore, so he's going to have moments that are not great," Haith said prior to the game against TAMU. "But I think for the most part, Phil has been outstanding all year."
Overall, Pressey has had a strong season. His point, rebound, assist and steal totals are all significantly up from last season. His markedly improved performance as the facilitator of the offense has played a significant role in the team's 18 wins.
The sophomore currently ranks second in the Big 12 Conference and 25th nationally in assists with 5.8 per game. His season total of 116 assists through the season's first 20 games has him on pace to break the current program record of 179 assists in a season, set by former Minnesota Timberwolves guard Anthony Peeler in 1990.
"Sometimes you have to take chances," Pressey said of his role. "You have to be smart, but I've pretty much learned there's certain times in games to take chances and certain times when not to."
Senior guard Marcus Denmon says the team has plenty of confidence in its young floor general.
"As a sophomore on a senior-driven team, he does what he needs to do," senior guard Marcus Denmon said of Pressey. "He's a worker. Every day after practice when I'm in the gym, he's always in there with me. When it comes time for his to take over a game, he possesses those abilities to do that."
Pressey's coach may be his biggest believer.
"You have a point guard that can control the game and make plays, we're going to put the ball in his hands," Haith said of Pressey. "We have a guy like Phil who can get you in offense. And that's a hard thing. It sounds simple, but it's not. A lot of teams around the country don't have the true point guard to get the ball in his hands and they struggle."
Pressey has had the ball in his hands plenty this season. More often than not, he has delivered for the Tigers.