Illinois struggled against inside muscle against Georgia last Saturday, but it was nothing compared with the whipping Missouri gave them in St. Louis. The Tigers aren't real tall, but they are physically strong and extremely aggressive, especially at the guard positions. They wanted the game, and they fought for every possession.
"They outplayed us," Illinois coach Bruce Weber stated afterward. "They set the tone the first three minutes. They were so aggressive. Their quickness bothered us. All year we've struggled with quickness. They are quicker than their other teams in the past. They kept sending those guards in. They just kept coming at you."
The Illini are a team of talented finesse players. Missouri is a team of football players in tennis shoes. The Tigers were mentally and physically stronger. They dominated, and the Illini couldn't push back.
Mizzou used a simple formula. Keep the Illini on their toes with an aggressive full court press, push transition at every opportunity, penetrate and dish for threes in the halfcourt, and push the Illini offense away from the basket and its taller front line. It worked like a charm.
The Illini outrebounded Missouri 47-37, but it was the Tigers' 13 offensive rebounds second half that helped them put the game away. The Illini outshot Mizzou 42% to 40%, but the Tigers were on fire first half and made twice as many threes as the Illini for the game.
Turnovers were a big factor. The Illini committed 22 errors, many of them unforced. The Tigers outscored the Illini off turnovers by a 25-12 margin, the difference in the game. Even when the Illini scored a basket, the Tigers often hustled downcourt for a layup at the other end. Every time the Illini tied the game or went up a point, the Tigers had an immediate response.
The Illini had no defensive presence in the game. The Tigers did what they wanted as their guards sped past Illini defenders with ease. If they had hit half their shots, they would have won by 30. The Illini took a couple charges in the game, but otherwise there was little resistance. And they left hot three-point shooters open on the arc all evening. Weber summed it up.
"To their credit, they just kicked our butts. They took it to us, and we weren't ready for that. They set the tone. We could not simulate or anticipate their quickness."
Mike Davis and Mike Tisdale each had double-doubles. Davis ended with 11 points and Tisdale 14, and each collected 13 boards. Tisdale fought hard, but he missed several close-in shots. Demetri McCamey scored the first seven points of the game and finished with 13 to go with 5 assists and four turnovers. Brandon Paul and D.J. Richardson added 11 points each, but they played like nervous freshmen.
Missouri's Kim English topped all scorers with 24 points including 4 threes. Freshman guard Michael Dixon added 16 points and hit several big buckets, and J.T. Tiller put down 12. Most of the Tigers are freshmen and sophomores, so they could have begun their own winning streak this evening.
The Illini get a few days off for Christmas, but the start of the Big 10 conference schedule is right around the corner. Northwestern visits the Assembly Hall December 30, and they may be ranked in the Top 25 by then.
In the meantime, the Illini need to regroup and decide what type of team they want to be. Perhaps they have been too concerned about their seeding for the NCAA tournament. They have more talent than last year, but they won't even make the tournament if they don't make major improvements soon.
"This is a character test," Weber understates. "What are you about? We've got to figure some things out pretty quickly. We've got to look at ourselves, our system, our team, and figure some things out. This is the most important time to hang together. This is a key stretch for us."