ST. LOUIS — On March 15, when 65 teams are chosen for the NCAA tournament, Tuesday night’s game in St. Louis could loom large for the Missouri and Illinois men’s basketball teams.
Preseason rankings put both participants in the 28th annual Braggin’ Rights game near the middle of the pack in their conferences. Both teams have cruised through their nonconference schedules with just one loss and picked up some decent wins along the way. Missouri is ranked 25th in the latest AP poll, and Illinois isn’t too far off.
“We’ve talked about getting a marquee win to finish up our resumé for the NCAA down the road in nonconference,” Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. “It’s a huge game. I hope we understand it, but it’s a huge game for Missouri as well.”
The Tigers have wins over Southern California and California, compared to Illinois’ victories over Georgia and at Vanderbilt. Missouri has eight double-digit victories. Illinois has seven. Both schools lost their only games against teams ranked in this week’s top 25.
“We know that we haven’t really done anything yet, we’ve still got a lot of teams to play. I don’t think we’ve proved ourselves yet,” Missouri guard Zaire Taylor said. “I think this is a chance for us to prove something as far as where we’re coming along as a team.”
Missouri coach Mike Anderson said the Tigers will be trying to push the tempo, while Weber would like to see more of a halfcourt game. Still, the two teams have some similarities in the way they play. Both are unselfish, and though DeMarre Carroll and Leo Lyons are both scoring more than 16 points per game for Missouri, neither team has any true stars. Missouri is third in the country with 20.4 assists per game, and the Illini are ranked sixth with 19.7 per game.
“You can’t key in on one person,” Missouri forward Leo Lyons said. “You’ve got to defend the whole team because at any given point one of their teammates can go off.”
Some computer rankings, which are free from the bias of preseason expectations, have been even more favorable to Missouri and Illinois. The Tigers are 13th in Jeff’s Sagarin’s rankings and eighth in the Pomeroy rankings, while Illinois is 19th in the Sagarin poll and 16th according to Pomeroy.
The bench, which has been a strong point for Missouri so far this season, could play a key role in the game. Illinois has the edge in experience, but Missouri's Matt Lawrence says he thinks the young guys will be prepared for playing time in a close game. Besides the loss to Xavier, where the Tigers lost a seven-point lead in the final five minutes, and a late rally in the Murray State game, Missouri hasn’t played many games that have been close.
If this year’s game holds true to form for these solid but unproven teams, that lack of experience could play a factor in front of the biggest crowd Missouri has seen this season. But four of the Tigers' five starters do know what it’s like to play close games in such an exciting atmosphere, since they played in last year’s 59-58 loss to Illinois.
“You learn more about your team in a game like this here or when adversity takes place,” Anderson said. “We played Xavier, and of course, we had some of the older guys in key situations, and they didn’t react too well, with missed free throws and a lot wasted opportunities.”
Even though six of the past eight games have been decided by eight points or less, Illinois has come away victorious in all of them. Anderson doesn’t put too much stock in the streak, but he admitted it might make the game a little bit more of a challenge for his team.
After this game, Illinois has just a home game against Eastern Michigan before jumping into Big Ten play with a big test at Purdue on Dec. 30. The Tigers have three home games left against smaller schools and a road test at Georgia before they open Big 12 play at Nebraska on Jan. 10. It might be the last chance they have for a marquee nonconference win, and Taylor said both teams need it just as badly.
It’s a nationally televised game and there’s going to be a lot of people watching,” Taylor said. “That, to me, is exciting. That’s what I signed up for. It’s just pretty much a dream come true.”