Missouri men's basketball prepares to grind it out against Illinois

Wednesday, December 21, 2011 | 9:15 p.m. CST; updated 10:48 p.m. CST, Wednesday, December 21, 2011
Illinois center Meyers Leonard hangs from the basket after a dunk during the first half of a game against Coppin State on Dec. 11 in Champaign, Ill.

ST. LOUIS — The Braggin' Rights game Thursday between Missouri and Illinois involves some firsts and lasts for the Tigers.

The game at Scottrade Center will be the first time Frank Haith, No. 9 Missouri's first-year coach, has taken part in the event that has become a marquee matchup in college men's basketball.

Thursday's games


No. 25 Illinois (11-1) vs. No. 9 Missouri (11-0)

When: 8 p.m.
Scottrade Center, St. Louis
KCMQ/96.7 FM; KTGR/1580 AM, 100.5 FM


Memphis (10-2) at Missouri (8-1)

When: 5:30 p.m.
Mizzou Arena
KCMQ/96.7 FM; KTGR/1580 AM; 100.5 FM;
Admission to the women's game is free if fans bring an unused gift for the Toys for Tots program.

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For five Missouri seniors who have beaten Illinois twice in a row, it will be the last time they play the Illini in St. Louis in front of what is expected to be about 20,000 fans from both sides of the Mississippi River.

Haith stopped short of calling the experience special but said the game has enormous meaning for both teams so early in the season.

"Both teams know that if you win this game, it's a game that will help you in the postseason," Haith said. "A game like this, that you play this type of year against a high-level team that's ranked … is a great opportunity."

No. 25 Illinois (11-1) will be the second ranked team Missouri plays this season. The Tigers beat then-No. 20 California 92-53 on Nov. 22 in Kansas City.

The Illini will also be one of the biggest and grittiest group of players Missouri has faced so far. Meyers Leonard is a 7-foot-1 sophomore center who comes into the game as Illinois' second leading scorer at 13.3 points per game. He has tallied 29 blocks so far this season and averages 7.8 rebounds a game.

Wednesday's practice at Scottrade Center showed the urgency that Missouri hopes to bring into the Braggin' Rights game. The practice was frantic at times and calm at others, a microcosm of the Missouri squad.

Sophomore point guard Phil Pressey was constantly in motion during a full-court one-on-one drill, his arms swinging back and forth and his body twisting to the movement of the ball. He yelled "I got ball!" over and over again so loudly it echoed. Marcus Denmon loped down the court effortlessly, no energy wasted on unnecessary movement, his eyes clear and focused.

The frenzy at Scottrade Center is indicative of a Missouri team that is well-known for its speed. But the Tigers' ability to force the pace and then slow it down at will might determine the outcome in a game against a much bigger Illinois team.

"They're good in terms of what they do offensively," said Haith of the Illini. "They screen and screen and screen, and we just got to be patient and grind it out on the defensive end."

Haith is preparing for a close game Thursday, calling out numerous scenarios in practice in which Missouri trailed with barely any time left.

With about 15 minutes left in practice, Haith called for a 3-point shot with less than 10 seconds remaining.

Phil Pressey jogged nonchalantly halfway down the court before sprinting to the top of the key, head-faking an imaginary player and passing the ball to senior Marcus Denmon, who effortlessly made the jump shot.

The Tigers ended practice with a prayer and headed to the locker room.

Illinois leads the Braggin' Rights series 20-10. Missouri has won two in a row by scores of 81-68 in 2009 and 75-64 in 2010.

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