Illinois and Missouri square off in the 31st annual Braggin' Rights game at the Scotttrade Center in St. Louis Thursday night. The Tigers have taken the country by storm with a mature, explosive 4-guard lineup. Illini coach Bruce Weber knows how special this long-standing series really is.
"We have a huge game. I don't know if there could be a better game in the country. Within leagues you have some great rivalries, but a neutral game like this is one of its kind."
Weber knows his work is cut out for him this year.
"Their four-man got hurt, out for the year. So they've gone small ball. Right now, it's been very effective; no one's been able to stop them. They score a lot of points, they shoot the three. And no one's been able to take advantage of them with their lack of size. Those dudes play hard. We're gonna have to disrupt that and play a special game."
The unbeaten Tigers play seven players most of the time. Senior Marcus Denman (6'-3", 185) leads the team with a 19.6 scoring average. He is hitting 53% from the field including 46% from the arc. He also averages over 5 rebounds a game and has committed only five turnovers all season. Senior guard Kim English (6'-6", 200) is hitting at a 16 ppg clip, and he is over 50% from the field and the arc.
Senior Ricardo Ratliffe (6'-8", 240) is the only tall starter. He is shooting at a phenomenal 77% rate from the field in scoring over 14 points a game. He grabs 7 boards per outing. Junior guard Michael Dixon (6'-1", 185) is also in double figures at 12.6.
Sophomore point guard Phil Pressey (5'-10", 170) is the assist leader at 6 a game and has an 8 point average. His senior brother Matt (6'-2", 195) also scores around 8 points a game in reserve minutes. The only true center on the team is senior Steve Moore (6'-9", 267). He adds 4 points a game in limited minutes.
Missouri scores points in bunches. Weber talks in glowing terms about their skill as a team.
"Missouri is a very good team, older guys, guys with great energy. They're playing very hard, very unselfish and can really explode on you. A two point game can be 11 in less than a minute. They have so many different weapons and a lot of experience. Right now, they're playing with a lot of confidence.
"Eight out of their last nine games have been 25 (point wins) or more. Only Villanova was a little bit of a game out at Madison Square Garden. Our whole thing, we have to disrupt it."
The question is, how do you disrupt the Tigers? The Illini like to get out in transition also. Doesn't that play into their hands?
"It's a fine line. We have to push the basketball and make opportunities when we can. But on the other hand, we can't shoot the ball quick and can't turn it over because they take turnovers and quick shots and are going the other way and getting quick threes or beating you to the basket.
"Because they have four guards playing at one time, penetration containment is gonna be so important. The Pressleys get into the paint and do a great job of dishing, especially Phil. He has a great knack of getting in the paint, making people help and then (pass) to the shooters."
The Illini have a defensive matchup problem at the power forward spot. Both Tyler Griffey and Mike Shaw will have difficulty chasing quicker players around the court. Will Weber prefer to play small to counter the Tiger advantage?
"We're gonna have to do that Thursday. And then we're gonna have to figure out a way when Tyler or Mike Shaw is in there, who are they gonna guard and how are they gonna guard them? That'll be the big thing. You're gonna have to give up something. Obviously, they can't go out and chase Kimmie English through single-singles.
"We're gonna have to mix it. When you go in there, we're gonna need good production. We're gonna need everybody to contribute. They don't have a very deep bench. They really have six starters with Dixon. Moore plays some."
Griffey has been attending the game since he was in 5th grade as his home is twenty minutes from the arena. It is always highlighted on his calendar. He wants a chance to compete in the game despite appearing to be the odd man out.
"I was asking Coach (Jay) Price who I was going to guard. I'm gonna have to guard some smaller, quicker players. Move my feet and keep my man in front of me.
"I think we're gonna try some things differently on defense. We're gonna have more mental practice than physical, going over some stuff. I'll be excited, I'll be ready to play.
"Our advantage is size, and their advantage is quickness. It's gonna be mismatches all over the place. We need to exploit ours and limit theirs."
The Illini defense has played well this season, most of the time. But it also has breakdowns according to Weber.
"In football, you have teams that give up big plays. We give up easy shots. We play great for 35-37 minutes and have very good defense, but then somebody will drive in and get a layup. It's like everyone looks at each other. It's baffling.
"I think some of that comes from the offensive end. We miss a shot, turn it over. Now, we come down court and instead of doing what we're doing on the defensive end, we're thinking, 'Man, I just missed a layup. I just turned it over, took a bad shot. And then we don't follow our principles.
"We've got to do a better job of not giving up the big play."
If the Illini have an advantage in the game, it is their depth. Weber hopes to tire out the Tigers with his bench, if only the freshmen can make viable contributions. Weber isn't asking a lot from them, just energy and hustle. Maybe a rebound here, an assist there, a deflection or steal once in awhile. But they are playing as tight as drums.
"Our freshmen have struggled; I've met with them. There's so much stuff thrown at them. They're overwhelmed. How do you guard a ball screen? We sometimes have to change things during the game, and that's hard for them. Defense is anticipation. If you're not anticipating, they're going by you. Especially good, smart teams."
In other words, like Missouri. On the surface, this is not a good game for the youngsters to find themselves. On the other hand, a little success might go a long way.
"If we can maybe get them in a little foul trouble, maybe get them deep into the bench, and then if our bench can get a couple hoops down, it would help them confidence-wise.
"The (freshmen) are gonna be fine; they're gonna be good players. We need some practice time, it would help. And we need a couple things to go off someone's head and into the hoop. It would make them feel good."
Illini big man Meyers Leonard has to be a difference-maker for the Illini. He is maturing rapidly and provides an eloquent synopsis of the game and what the Illini need to do to win.
"We've got a tough one on Thursday. We're the underdogs, but we're gonna fight. It would be a big win for us if we can get it. We've got to keep our heads on straight and keep working.
"It's an unbelievable environment; it's gonna be a packed house I'm sure. Mizzou is a very tough team this year, so it's gonna be a battle. I hope we put a good show on for our fans. We haven't made a step forward in the past week or so. If we could get this win, it will be huge for us.
"They're a very good team, four guards and one big. Very finesse, they're able to get up and down the court. They're streaky sometimes but able to humiliate people. It'll be interesting, but I think if we prepare well and go out and play like we can, I think we'll be all right.
"Maybe throw some different defenses at them. Try to get in their heads early. I would say get the ball inside close to the basket. Probably some post touches to me. Go out there and try to punk them at first. Get the first shot at them.
"We're coming in as the underdog. That's something we're not used to, but if we throw the first punch and surprise them, hopefully we can get a win."
The freshmen are not the only Illini who haven't played a Braggin' Rights game yet. Senior guard Sam Maniscalco has also never had the privilege. But he loves new opportunities and is optimistic.
"I'm excited about it. I've heard a lot about it obviously. This year they're a very explosive team and have many weapons. They get the ball up on the rim. We're gonna play our tails off and let the chips fall where they may. Hopefully we an come out with a 'W.'
"Any time you get to play a top 10 team, it's a big resume builder. It would be a big win for us now and down the road when it comes tournament time. And it would be big for our confidence as we go into the Big 10."