The Illini got off to a hot start this season by winning the Cancun Challenge and downing Gonzaga and Maryland on their way to a 10-0 start before falling to UNLV at the United Center. But the game that is circled on the calendar every year is the rivalry game against Missouri.
Illinois took nine Braggin' Rights games in a row leading up to three years ago, but the last three have belonged to Missouri. Obviously Illinois doesn't have the likes of Dee Brown and Deron Williams anymore, but the game always seems to be electrifying no matter who is in it. The only thing that stays the same is the clear divide of colors in the stands marked at the halfcourt line.
This year was new Missouri coach Frank Haith's first Braggin' Rights game. It didn't take him long to realize what it was all about.
"It's unbelievable. I can't imagine there being anything else like it when you have the energy like you had in this building. There was cheering after every basket. It's got to be one of the great basketball events in the country."
The volume in the stadium is intimidating to those who haven't ever played in the game before, and it's always a battle until the clock hits all zeros. It was no different this year. But when it came down to crunch time, a veteran Missouri team made the plays it needed to come out on top.
"I hope we can build some resolve," Illinois coach Bruce Weber stated afterward. "We've been in some close games. We wanted to make it close to see what they would do since they haven't been in a close game all year. But to their credit, they made plays, they kept their poise and the lead.
"We played against a veteran group and held our own. They're one of the top teams in the country, and we competed against them. They have eight seniors, so they're pretty experienced."
Illinois received a message from former guard Kiwane Garris before the game. Having played in the rivalry in the past, he knew what it would take to play in a game like that.
"Kiwane Garris talked to our guys before and told them about the heart and the toughness you'd need in this game. And I think we made some progress, but we have a long way to go."
The Illinois defense keyed on two of Missouri's best, hoping to force the other Tiger players to get the job done.
"We made the decision to lock in on Denmon and English and make the other guys make plays, and to their credit that's what they did. They got to the free throw line, and we didn't get to the free throw line. Those were the big things."
Last year's game featured a group of Illinois players with lots of experience, but also a lot of questions regarding effort and cohesiveness. Now with an almost entirely new starting lineup and experienced veteran transfer Sam Maniscalco, the Illini are trying to reshape their identity as they approach conference play.
Though they didn't come out victorious this year, Weber saw a lot of positive things his team did in the game.
"We grew up a little bit tonight. We picked up our intensity in the second half. The key is to keep making progress from here and learning how hard you have to play. I'm proud of how they played and how we've improved, but we have to practice better if we're going to compete in the Big Ten."
But the player of the night for the Illini was Joseph Bertrand, who went a perfect 9 for 9 from the field and co-led Illinois in scoring with 19 points. Weber met with Joe this past week and issued him a challenge to take charge of his progress and become a better player.
"Joe Bertrand, who hadn't made a bucket for 3 or 4 weeks, including practice, came up big-time and got us back into the game. I had individual meetings with him this week and told him, ‘I can't help you. If you want to be a player you have to come and be a player.
Two days ago we did a 4 on 4 and played full court after practice. To Joe's credit, he really stepped up and was the best player of those 8 guys. Maybe it'll give him a little confidence. But the way he played in practice and picked it up in the game was great. For him to go 9 of 9, I'm surprised but I'm happy for him."
Aside from Bertrand, both Brandon Paul and Leonard recorded double-doubles for the Illini. Missouri big man Steve Moore has a lot of respect for Leonard.
"He was a force. He's a tough, real strong kid. It made me have to be disciplined and hold my ground. He's a great player with a lot of potential and a seven-footer with long arms. We had to work together as a team to neutralize him."
Missouri guard Phil Pressey praised Illinois for taking them to the wire.
"We give a lot of credit to Illinois. They fought hard and didn't quit. Those are things you have to do to be a good team."
Not to single out one play or player, but Weber noted that Illinois needed to play harder down the stretch.
"When Tracy (Abrams) lost the ball, we didn't dive on the floor and get it. Instead, Ratliff picks it up and scores. Instead of being up two, we lost our play-hard chart by one. We had the jump ball and could have had control from there.
"Meyers played well, but he needs to be tougher in there. Brandon made some great plays, but he had two careless turnovers in there that cost us down the stretch."
Non-conference play has now concluded. The Big Ten is a particularly strong conference this year, and top to bottom could be the best conference in the country. Weber knows he has to ready his team for what will be a trial of his team's resolve and will to keep fighting.
"We have a couple days rest before we play on the 27th. The guys get two days before they come back and play Minnesota. It's a huge game because then we have two on the road against two very good teams. Hopefully we can match tonight's atmosphere on Tuesday."
So where do they go from here?
Sure, Illinois didn't come out on top in this game. But considering they were down by 13 points in the second half, it would have been really easy for the team to just pack up and go through the motions to get to the end, get on the bus, and go home. But something that's different about this year's team is that they kept on fighting. It won't always win you the game, but at the very least it will keep you in it.
Following a game where the bench was held scoreless, Bertrand came alive for 19 points. Can he keep it going? Like Weber said, it's up to him.
Tyler Griffey didn't see as much playing time in this game, but mostly because Missouri's matchups called for a different defensive lineup from Weber.
Sam Maniscalco pulled Illinois out of some tough situations in earlier games with hot 3-point shooting and tough finishes around the basket, but with his recent slump and stiff ankle, the other Illini have to be ready to step up and be more productive.
Losing a close game is always tough to swallow. But keep in mind, Missouri is undefeated and ranked 8th in the nation. Illinois played them to the wire. With more experience, the Illini can begin to win those games and stay more composed when the game is on the line.
Offensively, the Illini are finally starting to realize that when you attack the rim, good things happen. They didn't get to the line much against Missouri, but they converted a lot of driving layups and shots near the basket.
Weber is correct that his team has made a lot of progress. Over half the roster is composed of freshmen, and some have been forced into early action. In due time, this team will start to get it together. How long that takes is up to how hard they are willing to work.
Do they have what it takes? The Illini now stand 11-2, but are 0-0 in conference. Big Ten play is up next, and no night is a night off. Can they stay hungry and keep improving? Time will tell, but the Missouri loss could be a stepping stone to a successful season.