In beating Western Michigan 66-60 on Sunday night, the No. 24 Missouri Tigers improved to 10-0 on the season and also extended the nation’s longest home winning streak to 25 games.
It was a sometimes ragged game before a not quite half-full Mizzou Arena, but the Tigers made some big plays each time Western Michigan (5-4) got close. Missouri held the Broncos to just 30 percent shooting.
But even if it wasn’t a pretty win, it added to the Tigers’ growing momentum early in the season. Heading into the season, most analysts thought Missouri was on the bubble for making the NCAA Tournament, and that they would have to scramble to earn a sixth straight berth in the Big Dance.
That may end up being the case, but the early returns have been encouraging. Missouri has beaten mostly weaker opponents, with the notable exception of the home win over then-No. 18 UCLA on Dec. 7, a win that should bolster Missouri’s tournament resume all season long.
Transfer guard Jordan Clarkson has been as good or even better than my high expectations, averaging 20.2 points per game on 51.5 percent shooting so far. Freshman Johnathan Williams III, who as a 6-foot-9 forward out of Memphis may remind Tiger fans of Laurence Bowers, is leading the team in rebounding at 8.6 per game.
On Saturday, the Tigers face Illinois (9-2) in the annual “Braggin’ Rights” game in St. Louis (4:30 p.m. on ESPN2). It’s something of a rivalry game. I say something because when Illinois plays its other basketball games, a lot of Missouri fans either don’t care or root for the Illini to help Missouri’s strength of schedule. That was, well, not quite the case with Kansas. Still isn’t.
But I do enjoy this game, usually nestled right before Christmas. There is still an element of rivalry there with the proximity and playing every year. It’s also a great atmosphere, with the half-and-half crowd taking turns exploding as the Tigers and Illini race up and down the court. It’s also a good game oasis in what’s often a sea of scheduled blowouts this time of year. It’s a good indicator for both teams of what they have and how good they are.
Illinois has played a fairly soft schedule so far, but it’s getting tougher in a hurry. The Illini lost 71-64 at No. 15 Oregon, certainly a respectable result. Rayvonte Rice leads Illinois in scoring with 17.7 points per game. Senior Jon Ekey, from Independence, Mo., leads Illinois in rebounding. The Illini are probably an NCAA Tournament bubble team. This is a big game for them, as it is for the Tigers.
Illinois leads the all-time Braggin’ Rights series 20-12, but Missouri has won the last four meetings. In the last three, both teams were ranked. Neither teams have played a ton of quality teams yet, so it’s hard to know what will happen. But based on what we’ve seen so far, I think the Tigers should make it five straight over the Illini.