ST. LOUIS – If a decade of history has its way, the Missouri men's basketball team will again fall to Illinois Wednesday night in the annual Braggin’ Rights game, which has gone to the Tigers’ neighbors from across the Mississippi the past nine years.
Missouri (7-3) vs. Illinois (8-3)
WHEN: 8:30 p.m.
WHERE: Scottrade Center, St. Louis
TV: ESPN 2
RADIO: KFRU/1400 AM, KBXR/102.3 FM
But as lopsided as the rivalry has been since Missouri last beat Illinois in 1999 under first-year coach Quin Snyder, both teams come into tonight’s game in similar situations.
Both have three losses this season. Both know at least two of those losses should have probably been wins. And both have just one win outside their home arenas.
“It’s a huge game, a memorable game, a special game, but at the same time, it’s important too for our team right now,” Illinois coach Bruce Weber said. “They’re probably in the same boat. They probably feel the same way.”
Even if they aren’t saying it.
“There are some games, obviously, I don’t have to say anything about,” Missouri coach Mike Anderson said before his team practiced Tuesday at the Scottrade Center. “They know. They know.”
In Anderson’s past two Braggin’ Rights games, the Illini took control early and made Missouri play catchup.
Two years ago, Missouri found itself down 9-0 just four minutes into the game. The Tigers came back but lost 59-58 as Keon Lawrence dribbled the ball off his leg with a chance to win the game in the closing seconds.
Last year, Illinois (8-3) jumped to an 8-2 advantage. The lead was 11 after eight minutes, 18 at halftime, and it unraveled from there.
“It kind of did (catch us by surprise),” junior Justin Safford said of Illinois’ fast start last year. “Once the crowd was getting into it, guys kind of started going separate ways and just kind of folded. I think that first punch that they gave us put us back on our heels.”
Which is what Missouri tries to do its opponents with its press. Except it hasn’t fazed the Illini much lately. The relative ease with which Illinois has handled the Tigers’ press suggests it is better prepared for Missouri than others.
Credit the “Chaos” drill, which Illinois created several years ago to simulate, as well as possible, Missouri’s style of play. Forward Mike Davis said it involves putting five players on defense against four on offense, or sometimes six against five.
“Because that’s what it’s going to feel like – it’s going to feel like extra players are on you,” Davis said. “They’re always trapping, slapping you and trying to get steals and a lot of quick buckets.”
During the drill, one team presses the team with the ball while another team waits at halfcourt to play man-to-man defense once the team in possession gets through the press.
“You keep going back and forth, so you never get a chance to stop running and stop thinking and you’re always getting trapped our you’re getting double-teamed or you’re getting pressed,” guard Demetri McCamey said.
The drill seems to have worked.
“Coach Weber’s a good coach, and I think they were pretty prepared for it,” Safford said.
Illinois has forced Missouri into a slower halfcourt game, one the Tigers aren’t built to play and have struggled in this season in losses to Oral Roberts and Richmond. But Missouri won’t change now.
“Really, we’re just worried about what we do,” senior guard J.T. Tiller said. “We want to go out there and play our game and play the uptempo, pressure game that we’re used to.”
If Illinois lets them. It might be easier for the Tigers this year considering the Illini have only one guard – McCamey, a junior – who has faced Missouri’s press, which now-departed guards Chester Frazier and Trent Meacham handled last year.
This year, the load will fall on McCamey. Illinois’ other two guards, D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul, are freshmen.
On Tuesday, it was clear Weber was trying to prepare Paul for Missouri's defense. After Paul talked back while Weber was instructing him, Weber yelled, "So when a guy actually guards you, you know what the hell you're doing."
To beat the press, Paul and Richardson will need to stay composed.
“Hopefully tomorrow they take their time, don’t get rushed, don’t get pressured and just relax out there,” Davis said. “Just make good, crisp passes and they should be fine.”
Davis highlighted the significance of tonight’s game for Illinois, coming off a disappointing loss to Georgia.
“It’s not time to hit the panic button yet, but it’s coming soon if we lose a couple more games,” he said.
For Missouri, the game carries even more weight, even if Anderson or his players don’t say so. A victory would prevent Illinois from having the rights to brag about a 10-game winning streak.
Senior guard Zaire Taylor said he didn’t hear too much from Tiger fans about ending the streak until Monday.
“I went to the mall to go Christmas shopping and I was getting a lot of ‘good lucks,’” he said. “I never really went into a game with so many ‘good lucks.’”
Sure Missouri wouldn’t mind some of that tonight. After all, it’s been 10 years.