It's here, the annual Braggin Rights showdown pitting the #10 ranked Missouri Tigers versus #21 Illinois. In what always proves to be an interesting matchup, this one has the potential to go down as one of the best. Both teams have faced some off the court distractions as of late. Illinois has done and dealt with Luther Head, Aaron Spears, and Richard McBride for their dirty deeds. Missouri is still under investigation thanks to the Ricky Clemons scandal.
Last years game was a convincing 85-70 victory for Illinois pushing their win streak to 3 in this series. The Tigers will be the favorites this time as they are loaded at every position and are getting eligible for the first time Jason Conley and Randy Pulley. Illinois Coach Bruce Weber had hoped Missouri would be coming into the matchup undefeated. "I wish Missouri would have won (against Gonzaga) Saturday. I'd rather have them coming in undefeated because then we're the underdogs for sure. I still think we're the underdogs but we would have been even more so and maybe we could nip them when they could be #1 in the nation."
I can already hear it now. Some Illini fans will take Weber's comments as a confession that he isn't ready for the big games. The will say he's better suited at SIU where he can play the underdog role up. At Illinois, they don't want to be labeled the underdog in any game, the fans want Weber to be confident that he can win these games with his team.
Illini Nation is sick of hearing Weber complain about the tough schedule. Some feel that it's a rallying cry so that if Illinois loses, Weber can blame it on the schedule. If they win then they come out looking even better. So far in the big games on national television Illinois has looked decent against North Carolina and pitiful against Providence. The Illini are ready to put those games behind them and display to the nation the type of team they really are, minus Deron Williams.
If they are to do that, they'll have to do better than the most recent big games. Against North Carolina, Illinois looked awesome early and ran with the Tarheels until they decided to post an 18% free throw percentage in the 2nd half all but giving the game to UNC. Against Providence it got even worse. They committed 22 turnovers, shot 8 free throws total at a 38% mark. Every coach and fan in America knows you can't win the big games shooting that awful.
Will Weber be in awe of the atmosphere in St. Louis? "It's a huge game that I've heard about ever since I got the job here. I've been to the game and scouted it several times as an assistant at Purdue. It's an unbelievable atmosphere," Weber said.
If Weber and the Illini are going to come out victorious, they will need big time production from Dee Brown. The preseason Big 10 player of the year has been awful as of late. On the year he's shooting a measly 34% from the field and an even worse 31% from 3 point land. Those numbers have to improve or Dee will get even more frustrated. Dee is still claiming he is the leader and Weber feels even though Dee's numbers are not great, he's starting to buy into the system.
Another key to this game is for someone to step in and contribute for the absent Deron Williams. Luther Head showed his inconsistency yet again on Saturday posting dreadful numbers of 0-7 from the floor, 0 assists, and 4 turnovers. The Illini will get murdered if Head turns in another performance like that. Coming to the rescue is Richard McBride. McBride had his coming out party against Memphis with amazing numbers of 22 points, 6 threes, 5 assists, 5 rebounds, and NO turnovers. Illini Nation cannot expect McBride to continue those type of numbers but as long as he is steady and remains the outside shooting threat they need they should be happy.
The frontcourt matchups is where it gets really ugly. "Arthur Johnson is as good as a big man in the country, (Rickey) Paulding is a future pro, the foreign kid they added (Linas Kleiza) is very good, and then you got another older guy in (Travon) Bryant so it's not going to be an easy game," Weber said. The Illini will counter attack with James Augustine and Roger Powell, followed by some combination of Brian Randle, Nick Smith, and Jack Ingram. Also look for Aaron Spears to possibly get some time this game. The Illini look like toothpicks compared to the big, bad, and bulky Tigers.
"They're good, I faced them last year at SIU the last game I coached there. We have to come out with the same type of effort and hopefully be ready to play a top 10 team again," Weber said. From all indications, this one looks like a must win for the Illini based on their previous showings on national television. However, I'm going to give them a break since they don't have Deron Williams at this point. The Illini can hope that Missouri has problems of it's own trying to make all their big time scorers happy. Chemistry has not always been a strong point for Quin Snyder's Tigers. The only way I see Illinois winning this one is if Dee Brown has a career game and McBride goes off from behind the arc again. Combine that with a double double from Augustine and maybe they win. Otherwise I'm going with Missouri by 12.