Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Appreciating the Missouri-Illinois rivalry

Missouri rolled overmatched William & Mary on Sunday, one last big win over a weaker home nonconference opponent. Missouri’s 94-56 win came against a team that struggles to score, but it moved Missouri to 11-0 and set the stage for a big game with Illinois on Thursday in St. Louis (8 p.m. on ESPN2).

Illinois is having a pretty good start to the season, as the Illini were undefeated until losing last Saturday to UNLV in Chicago. Despite that setback, this neutral-site game is still the kind that will carry some weight when the NCAA Selection Committee begins handing out seeds for the NCAA Tournament in March.

The Tigers’ annual matchup with Illinois, dubbed the Braggin’ Rights Game, has been played each December in St. Louis since 1983. (The Tigers and Illini also played there in 1980 and 1981.)

It’s an interesting rivalry between the two schools. Speaking from the Missouri side, this rivalry has nowhere near the animosity of the epic rivalry with Kansas, but it certainly gets the juices flowing for their annual, pre-Christmas matchup. The arena is usually always about a 50-50 split of fans from each school, making for a pretty passionate atmosphere.

Especially with the impending end (perhaps temporarily) of Missouri’s heated rivalry with Kansas, Tiger fans are possibly appreciating this rivalry with Illinois a bit more. No, Missouri hasn’t been playing Illinois for a hundred years, but the Tigers and Illini do have a solid 30-year history of some intense and thrilling games.

In 1988, No. 5 Illinois won 87-84 over No. 10 Missouri. The following year, No. 5 Illinois topped No. 4 Missouri 101-93. In 1993, Missouri prevailed 108-107 in triple overtime. Illinois won nine straight from 2000 through 2008, then Missouri broke through with an emotional win in 2009. Missouri then won again in 2010, the Tigers’ first win in the series in which both teams were ranked. Illinois had won the first six meetings in which both teams were ranked. Overall, Illinois leads the series 20-10.

This year’s Braggin’ Rights Game should be a good test for both teams. Missouri has played three neutral-site games so far, but Thursday’s game against Illinois will probably have more fans of the other team than any of Missouri’s games to date, so it will be a nice chance for the Tigers to get used to playing in a hostile atmosphere. Or at least a half-hostile atmosphere.

Illinois has struggled to score at times early in the season. Illinois’ leading scorer is D.J. Richardson, but Meyers Leonard may be the X-factor in this game. Leonard leads the Illini in rebounding and is second in scoring, currently making over 60 percent of his shots. He was big in Illinois’ nice win over Gonzaga earlier this season, but then he was a virtual non-factor in the loss to UNLV.

Missouri can get points from a number of sources, with three players, Marcus Denmon, Kim English and Mike Dixon, who have each scored at least 30 points in a game this year. Both teams are capable, but we’ll see if Missouri can keep rolling.

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