Mizzou, Illini Tangle For Bragging Rights

The Bragging Rights game with Missouri in St. Louis has been favorable to Illinois in recent years. But despite winning the last 8 years, the Illini will be hard-pressed to make it 9. The Tigers are riding high with a quick, fast-paced team that is now ranked in the top 25 after having won their last 7 games in a row.

There is no more intense, important rivalry than the Bragging Rights game. It is one of the most unique experiences of any season according to Illinois coach Bruce Weber.

"The atmosphere is unbelieveable. The intensity level of the game is one of the highest of the year. And even on a neutral court, the crowd's energy is in the tradition of the game."

Former players and coaches remind the current squad how important the game really is. Both teams will play at a fever pitch.

"We put up a quote from James Augustine after the (Detroit) game, Jerrance (Howard) talked to them the other day. Those guys understand. It's important because of the date. Everybody's watching, there's not much else going on on the 23rd. And it's got great tradition. Former players, alumni, everyone seems to pay attention to this game."

Each team has experienced streaks of success, and the winning team has not always been the favorite going it. So despite the Illini's current streak, they can't rest on past laurels.

"History has nothing to do with what happens Tuesday night. It's a big game for us, not only the Bragging Rights game and everybody gets fired up about it, but also because it's a chance for us to get a marquee win and maybe sneak into the top 25. They're talking about the same things. I'm sure they'll be ready to play at a high level also."

Weber has cautioned about Missouri's quality all season, knowing the Illini will need their best effort to win. Senior forward DeMarre Carroll (6'-8", 225) leads the Tigers in scoring and rebounding, and Weber says he is a tough matchup.

"Their 4 man Carroll plays at times like a 3 man. He's versatile, and he's strong enough, and he really plays hard. He has the nickname 'Junkyard Dog.' You've got to earn that type of name with intensity and hard-nosed play."

In fact, Carroll and fellow senior Leo Lyons (6'-9", 244) are highly mobile and effective in coach Mike Anderson's running, pressing style.

"Their two big guys are both very mobile and kind of face up big guys," Weber explains. "They use their mobility, quickness and athleticism. They draw their men out on the court and then face up and take them to the paint, beat them one on one.

"They also do a good job of getting out in transition. They'll actually lead the break or run out on the break. And they are both very good offensive rebounders. They have as many offensive rebounds as defensive rebounds, so they present a big problem.

"Mike Tisdale isn't quite as mobile, so it will be a challenge for him. And Richard Semrau, Mike Davis and Dominique Keller must match up with those guys. You're talking about 17 points a game, 16 points a game for both of them so they're versatile and tough matchups."

Illinois' only loss this season was a heartbreaker to Clemson, and Missouri plays a similar style according to Weber.

"The pressing is very similar. They will go with the diamond 1-2-1-1 trap, they'll go with the man-to-man and then run and jump you at half court, and they'll go a soft press. The difference is, while we got hurt by Clemson with points in the paint these guys will both face up, and they're good offensive rebounders.

"Both teams have pretty good depth. In the Stetson game, they (Missouri) outscored them 40 something to 6 from the bench. We're gonna have to match their intensity and then match their bench play and take care of the ball."

Other starters for the Tigers include senior Matt Lawrence (6'-7", 203), who averages 9.5 points a game; junior transfer Zaire Taylor (6'-4", 189); and J. T. Tiller, a 6'-3", 200 pound junior.

Top reserves include junior Keith Ramsey (6'-9", 210), sophomore Justin Safford (6'-8", 230) and freshmen Miguel Paul (6'-1", 172), Marcus Denmon (6'-3", 185), Laurence Bowers (6'-7", 205), and Kim English (6'-6", 200).

Weber knows how he wants to play Mizzou. The question now is whether the Illini are up to the challenge.

"We have to take care of the basketball," Weber insists. "If we have open opportunities after the press, take them. If we don't, we've got to make sure they guard us in the half court and not take quick shots.

"We are a better shooting team this year, and I think we'll get open shots. If you miss, especially quick ones, they're going with it. That's where it's tough to stop them. I don't want a complete halfcourt game, but it adds up to our advantage."

If history is any indication, tonight's game will be another memorable barn-burner.


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