Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Top-10 Illini provide test for the Tigers

Of all the ups and downs of Missouri’s switch to the Southeastern Conference, the most painful may have been when Tiger fans saw a basketball schedule that did not include the traditional home-and-home games with Kansas.

But with that gone, Missouri must look to Illinois for a rivalry fix. The annual Braggin’ Rights game in St. Louis doesn’t have near the unyielding animosity of the Border War, but let’s appreciate it for what it is, an entertaining game in a great atmosphere with a tidy three-decade history.

Saturday’s Missouri-Illinois game (5 p.m. on ESPN2) also presents the first good test for the Tigers (9-1) in about a month. After the solid Battle For Atlantis tournament in the Bahamas over Thanksgiving weekend, Missouri has been working through some lesser nonconference games.

The Illinois game will be Missouri’s 11th of the season, so it will be interesting to see how Missouri’s roster, made up almost entirely of new players, works together a third of the way through the regular season against a good team. It will also be the Tigers’ first game with a large amount of the other team’s fans in attendance.

Illinois (12-0) has been quite a surprise this season. Expectations were modest for the first year under new coach John Groce, but the Illini have earned a top-ten ranking, winning the Maui Invitational and picking up other noteworthy wins against Butler and at then-No. 10 Gonzaga. Groce led Ohio to the Sweet 16 last season.

The Illini are led by Brandon Paul, who is putting up 19.0 points, 4.7 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game. D.J. Richardson and Tracy Abrams also provide some scoring punch. Illinois is interesting in that no player averages more than 4.7 rebounds per game, but seven players are pulling down between 3.4 and 4.7 rebounds per game.

This is a big opportunity for Missouri to pick up a nice win that can bolster the team’s NCAA Tournament resume. And of course, the Tigers can earn those Braggin’ Rights.

Illinois leads the overall series 20-11, in large part due to a 10-game winning streak from 2000 to 2008. Missouri snapped the skid with an emphatic 81-68 win in 2009, which has started a three-game winning streak for the Tigers.

The teams have met annually in December in St. Louis since 1983, with previous meetings in 1980 and 1981. With the crowd split half-and-half, the momentum swings get magnified as each team’s fans take their turns cheering.

Missouri has had its ups and downs in the rivalry, from the 108-107 triple overtime win in 1993 to the 82-50 loss/dismantling in 2005. Illinois won the first six matchups when both teams were ranked, but then Missouri won the last two such meetings, in each of the last two years.

Saturday could add another exciting chapter to the series’ lore. It will be the first matchup with both teams in the top 15 since 2002, and it should be a great test for these Tigers.

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