Braggin' Rights Game Preview: Illinois

The Missouri Tigers face off against the Illinois Fighting Illini again this Saturday in the annual Braggin' Rights rivalry game which has become a must see classic of the basketball season for fans of both schools.

On Saturday (5:00 P.M., ESPN2) the #12 Missouri Tigers (9-1) and the #10 Illinois Fighting Illini (12-0) resume their rivalry in the Bud Light Braggin’ Rights at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis.  This is the highest these two teams have been ranked for their annual meeting since 2001, when #9 Illinois defeated #8 Missouri 72-61.

The Illini come in off of a 66-53 win over Eastern Kentucky on Sunday that made first-year Illini Head Coach John Groce just the second coach in Illinois history to win his first 12 games.

Illinois has a good mixture of youth and veteran leadership.  For seniors like 6’4” 200-pound G Brandon Paul, 6’3” 195-pound G D.J. Richardson, and 6’9” 220-pound F Tyler Griffey, this will be their fourth Braggin’ Rights contest.  Those seniors have yet to win one, since Missouri has won the last three meetings in St. Louis.  Overall, Illinois holds a 20-11 edge in the series.

“(Illinois) is a great team,”  said Missouri Head Coach Frank Haith, talking about the Illini.  “They are playing at a high level right now.   They’ve had some really good wins so far…………………………………….  John (Groce) has done a really good job with that team, in terms of getting them to play free and easy and with a lot of confidence. ”

Paul leads the Illini in scoring.  He averages 18.8 points/game, and Richardson is averaging 11.5 points/game.  Both senior guards are doing most of their scoring from behind the 3-PT line.  Paul is making 40% of his three-pointers, and over half of his total field goal attempts come from behind the arc.  Three-fourths of Richardson’s field goal attempts come from behind the arc, where he’s shooting 35%.

Griffey hasn’t taken nearly as many threes as have Paul and Richardson, but half of his field goal attempts come from behind the arc, where he’s made good on 43% of his 3-PT shots. 

The third guard in the starting lineup for Illinois is 6’1”  185-pound sophomore G Tracy Abrams, who is also averaging 11.5 points/game.  Just one-third of Abrams’ field goal attempts are three-pointers, and he shoots just 29% from behind the arc.  He does his damage closer to the basket.

The big man in the middle for the Illini is 6’11”  235-pound sophomore Nanna Egwu.  He doesn’t shoot the three.  He’s averaging 5.8 points and 3.8 rebounds per contest.   Egwu is a rapidly improving player who has NBA-type athleticism.

Paul is also leading the Illini in rebounding, at 5.1 rebounds/game, and with his 3.5 assists/game.  He’s also tied with Richardson and Abrams for the team lead with 1.5 steals/game.

“Illinois’ guards are as good as there are in the country,”   said Coach Haith.   “I think Paul is playing like a national player of the year guy.   He’s just playing with such confidence.”

The trio of Paul, Richardson and Abrams have a combined 1.25 assist/turnover ratio.  No other Illinois regular has more assists than turnovers.  Collectively, the rest of the Illini regulars have nearly twice as many turnovers as assists.  But, I’m not sure that’s all that much of a problem for the Illini since that trio of guards have the basketball in their hands almost all of the time.

Egwu has some help up front coming off of the bench in 6’8” 220-pound forward Sam McLaurin, who transferred into Illinois this year as a graduate student from Coastal Carolina.  McLaurin doesn’t shoot the three, either.  He’s playing 20 minutes/game, and he’s averaging 4.5 points and 4.1 rebounds per a game.

The Illini’s best three-point shooter comes off of the bench for Coach Groce, in the person of  6’6”  195-pound red-shirt junior G Joseph Bertrand.    Bertrand is a starter-quality player who plays a solid all-around game while playing 21 minutes/game.  He’s averaging 8.6 points and 4.5 rebounds per game.  He leads the Illini in field goal percentage (61%) and 3-PT field goal percentage (48%). 

Rounding out the rotation for Coach Groce is 6’6” 230-pound sophomore G Myke Henry, who is averaging just 12 minutes/game.   But when Henry comes in, he’s getting up quite a few threes, and he makes 38% of his 3-PT shots.

Illinois is not a particularly strong rebounding team, although their guards do a great job of getting on the boards.  Defensively, Illinois is holding their opposition to just over 40% from the field, and they’re turning their opponents over at more than 15 turnovers/game.   Illinois excels on the perimeter on both ends of the floor.  At times, they’ll play with four guards to maximize their back court advantage.

The Illini have been very efficient on the offensive end this season, averaging 1.1 points/possession, which interestingly, is almost identical to Missouri's offensive efficiency (1.111) this year.

Should be a good one.  Short of March Madness, the Braggin’ Rights is just about as entertaining as college basketball gets.     

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