ST. LOUIS — Missouri men's basketball coach Frank Haith got his first taste of one of the Tigers' best traditions on Thursday — the annual Braggin' Rights game against Illinois in St. Louis.
Haith, who left the University of Miami for Missouri after last season, said before the game that he was expecting an NCAA tournament feel. Even with those lofty expectations, Haith was still impressed by the game's atmosphere.
No. 9 Missouri (12-0)
at Old Dominion (6-6)
WHEN: 6 p.m. Friday
WHERE: Ted Constant Convocation Center, Norfolk, Va.
RADIO: KTGR.1580 AM, 100.5 FM, KCMQ/96.7 FM
"It's got to be one of the great basketball events in the country," he said.
Players and fans agree. Michael Dixon and Kim English called the Braggin' Rights games some of the "funnest" games they've ever played in. More than 22,000 fans showed up to Thursday's contest, which Missouri won 78-74.
"It was unbelieveable," Haith said. "I can't imagine anything else like it. There's cheering on every basket."
There was also cheering on every whistle, loose ball and rebound. Even during commercial breaks, the Scottrade Center got loud.
Behind Haith was a sea of black and gold going crazy as he stood with his arms folded or pumped his fist after a loose ball was recovered by the Tigers. Just feet away was an equally excitable sea of orange behind Illinois coach Bruce Weber as he screamed until he could barely speak and threw his arms up in the air after questionable calls.
When chants of I-L-L, I-N-I filled the orange side of the stadium, chants of M-I-Z, Z-O-U filled the black and gold side.
Even the cheerleaders were involved in the rivalry with their annual contest where five male cheerleaders from each side hold a female cheerleader up in the air to see who can hold that position longest during a first-half commercial break. Illinois won this year's contest.
The only people in the arena who might not have been having fun were the referees, who were booed vehemently by one side or the other after every close call they made.
The only thing that Missouri and Illinois fans cheered for together was when the PA announcer let the crowd know that Carlos Beltran signed a contract with the St. Louis Cardinals.
Even Missouri governor Jay Nixon was booed by the Illinois faithful.
The Braggin' Rights atmosphere raises the possibility that something similar could work for Missouri's rivalry against Kansas when the Tigers join the SEC this summer.
Missouri and Illinois have been playing the Braggin' Rights game as out-of-conference opponents since 1980.
Missouri and Kansas have already played a neutral site football game at Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City each of the past five seasons. A neutral site basketball game could be played at the Sprint Center in Kansas City.
Haith has already told ESPN that he would like to continue the Kansas basketball rivalry with alternating home games each year. Haith will get his first tastes of the Kansas rivalry on Feb. 4 at Mizzou Arena and Feb. 25 at Allen Fieldhouse.
When Missouri announced it's move to the SEC, MU athletics director Mike Alden said that the school wanted to keep the Kansas rivalry alive. Maybe an annual neutral site game is the way to do it.