Hoops breakdown: Illinois

Facing the best team in the country away from home is never an attractive proposition, but Missouri has a few things going its way against Illinois tonight. The Tigers have an opportunity to reward a disillusioned fan base with a strong showing and boast two St. Louis natives, one of whom will be playing college basketball in his hometown for the first time.

1) Too many options: Illinois can score. A lot. The Illini average 72 points a game, a mark the Tigers have hit just three times this season. And Illinois hasn't been doing it against Little Sisters of the Poor University; with convincing wins against Gonzaga and Wake Forest -- then the No. 1 team in the country -- under their belts, the Illini have proved that they are the best team in the country so far this season.

Much of that is due to a talented and experienced starting five, which has remained unchanged through Illinois' first 10 games. Although guards Deron Williams and Dee Brown get most of the praise, Luther Head leads the Illini in scoring, averaging 15.8 points per game. Brown, Williams and Roger Powell also average at least 13.0 points per, with center James Augustine the only one under that mark. He averages a scant 9.6 points.

Missouri has at least three players -- Linas Kleiza, Jason Conley and Thomas Gardner -- that can take over the game with their offensive ability, but none of them have done it consistently yet. Each player will need to have a strong performance for the Tigers to stay in this game.

2) Pass the test: Although Missouri students took final exams last week, Jason Horton will face the biggest test of his career when he matches up with Brown on Wednesday. Brown is the best "pure" point guard in the country, capable of distributing the ball effectively to his teammates, as the balanced scoring stat above shows. Brown averages 5.3 assists per game, but he can shoot, too; his 52.9 percent mark from the field is the best among all guards at the Division I level.

It would be asking to much for Horton to shut down Brown completely, but asking him to limit him from beyond the arc is reasonable. When his 3-pointer is not falling, Brown is not as dangerous driving off the dribble. He shot a combined 3-of-9 from 3 in his two lowest point totals of the season, six against Oakland and seven against Georgetown. The Tigers need to keep Brown under wraps from the perimeter.

3) Break the bench: Illinois has some talent on its bench, but nothing near the caliber of its starters. Its two best reserves are big men; forward Warren Carter averages 4.4 points per game and center Nick Smith, who scored six points against the Tigers last year, averages 3.8. The exterior reserves are not much of a threat; Rich McBride leads them, averaging 4.4 points.

To exploit this, Missouri needs to follow the script it used in the second half against Indiana. If the Illini coaching staff has watched much Missouri game tape, the Illini will likely give the Tigers a lot of zone looks. Missouri needs to take advantage of this by driving to the basket and/or dishing it out to the open shooter. Theoretically, this will get the Illini into foul trouble and the Tigers to the line or some open looks for Missouri's jump shooters. Either outcome is acceptable, as long as Missouri converts.

4) Control the crowd: The Savvis Center crowd will be juiced up from the tip. With Illinois among the nation's elite, there will be that much more for the crowd to get excited about.

Missouri must use the split crowd to its advantage. The Tigers opened the game very slowly last year, letting Illinois jump out to a 42-28 halftime lead. Although Missouri supporters grew more and more vocal as the Tigers clawed back into the game, Missouri does not have near the talent or experience it had last season. The Tigers need their fans behind them from the opening tip, but they will only be loud if Missouri gives them something to cheer about. A strong start could motivate the Tigers into thinking they can hang with this talented Illinois bunch.

5) Projected headline: Brown-out: Illinois tops rival Missouri

There are way too many factors working against the Tigers tonight. Illinois has waxed some very good teams, leading the Tigers to talking about the Illini in a respectful, almost reverential, tone.

This one could be over early. Missouri will need a monster effort to come out victorious, a result that would be the most surprising in the storied history of this rivalry. I can't see that happening.

Illinois takes a 10-point lead into halftime and holds off Missouri the rest of the way, extending its lead late. Missouri returns home disappointed, but not discouraged, with the outcome.

Final score: Illini 80, Tigers 61


Black & Gold Illustrated Top Stories