Illinois and Missouri square off Wednesday night in St. Louis to determine who gets to keep the huge Bragging Rights trophy for the next year. It has become a fixture in Champaign, and the Tigers are hungry to return it to Columbia. The game figures to be a battle to the end.
Former Illini players remind the current roster the importance of the game and insist they keep their nine game winning streak intact. Like Illinois coach Bruce Weber states, this game is always memorable.
"We have a great opportunity here, a very special game. You play 120-130 games in your career, there's a handful of them you always remember. You go back and talk to the former guys, this is one of the games they'll always remember.
"I still remember my first one. I was in amazement at the environment at the game, the fans around town, the fans after the game. It's a big deal. I hope our guys realize it."
The Illini are 8-3 on the season after losing to Georgia last Saturday. They have a bad taste in their mouths and can't wait to get back on a winning track. The 7-3 Tigers are tired of being embarrassed nine straight years. Their alumni are on them to produce, and they will be extremely fired up to reverse their fortunes.
"It's a huge game, it's a memorable game, it's a special game," Weber admits. "But at the same time, it's important for our team right now. They're probably in the same boat, and you throw the streak on. We're gonna have to play good basketball to win Wednesday night."
Missouri coach Mike Anderson is a product of the Nolen Richardson coaching tree. Like Richardson, he employs a frenetic full court press to disrupt opponents and get quick baskets. If you don't value each possession, you could get overwhelmed.
The Tigers are missing their top two front line players to graduation, but their smaller size makes them even more mobile according to Weber.
"They're playing smaller this year. They always seem smaller, but they're smaller this year. They make you accountable, they don't let you take plays off, they keep coming at you.
"They've shot the ball really well from three. And they just keep coming at you with the presses. It's always one of our worries. Up to this point, we've been okay against the press, but this is a whole other level of pressing, and it's continuous. You're gonna turn it over, but don't multiply it, don't let them get in runs.
"They're gonna isolate and try to get (Mike) Tisdale out on the court and then try to dribble penetrate, use their quickness with small ball. On the other hand, we need to take advantage and try to get the ball inside, which we haven't done as much as we need to.
"If you have the break, beat the press and have the shot, fine. If not, put them on defense. Any pressing team like that, they've spent a lot of time (practicing) in the full court defense. They don't spend as much time in the halfcourt. We have to make them accountable and try to get the ball inside to our guys. Tisdale shoots so well, which makes it a bigger factor."
Only senior Keith Ramsey (6'-9", 217) has started all ten games for the Tigers. He leads the team with 5.9 rebounds a game but averages only 5.9 points a game. Sophomore guard Kim English (6'-6", 200) leads the team with 16.1 points a game. Sophomores Marcus Denmon (6'-3", 185) and Laurence Bowers (6'-8", 205) are also in double figures with 10 point a game averages.
Senior guard J.T. Tiller (6'-3", 200) missed the last three games but will play against Illinois. He averages 9.6 points a game and was the Big 12th Defensive Player Of The Year last season. Likely starters Zaire Taylor (6'-4", 189), a senior, and freshman Michael Dixon, Jr. (6'-1", 175) both score between 8 and 9 points a game. Junior Justin Safford (6'-8", 230), a Bloomington product, and sophomore Miguel Paul (6'-1", 172) also see plenty of action.
Missouri is averaging 82.3 points per game with their running style. More amazing, they are shooting .411 as a team from the three point line. Taylor has hit 16-28 to lead the Tigers, while Denmon, Bowers, Dixon, Safford, and Paul are all over 40% for the season.
Weber has been preaching toughness this week. The Illini were out fought in their three losses, and Missouri is the most physical team they have faced. Rebounding has been inconsistent for the Illini this year, but Weber believes Mizzou's style will allow the Illini more opportunities to crash the glass.
Illini junior guard Bill Cole believes his team is ready to rebound after the setback to Georgia.
"We're a little down after that loss, but we had great practices. We really got after it. We have to come prepared for Missouri, lock down and be prepared to play with energy with the press they bring. That will be the first step to getting back on track."
Cole is well aware of the expectations from Illinois alumni.
"Illinois basketball has a strong foundation of good play. Every player who leaves here wants to look back and see the team doing good. We owe it to those guys to play our butts off. We didn't do it the other night, but the good news is we've got the rest of the season to prove it to those guys."
Illini point guard Demetri McCamey has played in two of these games, and he knows what to expect.
"It means a lot. It's like an NCAA game. Everybody will play 110%, and it will be 50:50 our crowd and their crowd. Everybody will be pumped up. You'll see people in the stands going crazy, and they'll make you play good basketball and want to win that much more."
It will be McCamey's responsibility to see to it the Illini beat the press.
"We've got to play smart, be tough and be strong. My first two years, we did a good job with the pressure."
Of course, he realizes the Illini's 9 game winning streak doesn't sit well with the Tigers.
"It's probably a motivator for them. They're gonna come in and want to end the streak and bring the trophy back to their home."
Junior college transfer Dominique Keller remembers his first Bragging Rights game last year.
"You walk into the arena, and it's half orange and half black. There's a lot of intensity, and it's loud the whole game. I remember the first time, you couldn't even hear yourself talk. It's about pride. We've got a little streak going, and we want to keep it going."
Illini freshmen guards D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul have been much less consistent away from home. This game will be another huge test for them. Richardson thinks he and Paul will be ready.
"I've been doing pretty good with handling the ball. I've cut down on turnovers as I'm more calm. It's probably good for me and Brandon's type of game. Up and down, fast break. We'll be prepared for it."
The Illini have to improve their toughness, fight for 40 minutes, and play better defense to win. They need to treat each game as if they are the underdogs. They lost three games on neutral courts they were favored to win. According to Cole, they must find a way to win those games.
"Part of being a great team is beating the people you're supposed to beat and beat the people you're not supposed to beat. Right now, we're not beating teams we're supposed to beat. If we want to take this team to the next level, we're gonna have to start doing that."
Streaks were meant to be broken. The longer a streak goes, the more pressure there is to reverse it. Can the Illini keep it going, or will Missouri find it's winning ways? Stay tuned.