The senior class of the Missouri men’s basketball team has an impressive 66-36 record in the past three seasons, but against annual nonconference opponent Illinois, the Tigers have lost all three matchups.
The Tigers’ seniors get their final chance against Illinois at 8 tonight in the Braggin’ Rights game at Savvis Center in St. Louis.
“It’s kind of the game we pinpointed and said, ‘We have to win this game,’” senior forward Travon Bryant said. “We know we have to turn it up defensively, limit what they want to do. If we play good defense and rebound the ball, we’ll have a pretty good night.”
Dee Brown had 21 points and seven assists in Illinois’ 85-70 victory last season. Brian Cook added 17 points, making 10-of-10 from the foul line. Senior Rickey Paulding had 17 points to lead the Tigers.
Illinois won 72-61 in 2001 and needed overtime for an 86-81 win in 2000.
Senior forward Josh Kroenke, who received a fifth year of eligibility after redshirting in 2000-01, is the only current Tiger to have won against Illinois. Kroenke was a freshman when MU defeated Illinois 78-72 on Dec. 21, 1999.
“It’s going to be big,” Kroenke said. “We want to go up there and make a statement that this team is for real, and we’re ready to play against the best teams in the nation.”
The game is the second of four in nine days. In the first game of the stretch, the No. 11 Tigers (4-1) outlasted UNC-Greensboro 106-98 on Sunday at Hearnes Center. After not being eligible to play during the first semester, juniors Jason Conley and Randy Pulley made their debuts in the win.
Conley, who transferred from VMI in January, had 19 points in 21 minutes, and Pulley, who was not immediately certified academically after transferring from Barton (Kan.) County Community College, scored five points in 11 minutes.
Despite struggling defensively Sunday, the Tigers continued a trend that reflects their strong inside presence: rebounding. Against the Spartans, the Tigers grabbed 35 rebounds to 18. Fourteen of the Tigers’ rebounds were offensive.
The Tigers have outrebounded all of their opponents this season. The Tigers’ plus-14.2 rebounding margin ranks second in the Big 12 Conference. Although averaging only 21.2 minutes, freshman Linas Kleiza leads the Big 12 with 11.2 rebounds per game.
“Linas must be doing something right in the minutes that he’s playing to be leading the Big 12 in rebounding,” coach Quin Snyder said. “I attribute that to the competition (with Bryant) that exists.”
Kleiza had a game-high nine rebounds Sunday.
Although rebounding has been a consistently strong aspect, turnovers have presented a regular problem. MU committed 19 against the Spartans, making it 4-of-5 games in which the Tigers have had at least 17 turnovers.
“There’s just some looseness,” Snyder said. “It’s things guys know when they do it, it’s ‘my bad,’ but that’s too late. We’ve got too much of that. We just need to take more responsibility and ownership of those things.”
As the Tigers struggle to find their identity, Illinois coach Bruce Weber has addressed that problem. After growing tired of being compared to his predecessor Bill Self, Weber, in his first year as coach of the No. 21 Illini (6-2), arrived to the game against Maryland-Eastern Shore on Dec. 11 dressed in black. Weber then told the players and media that it was for Self’s funeral as coach of the Illini.
Weber has replaced Self’s predominantly high-low offense with the motion offense that Weber used as coach of Southern Illinois, whom the Tigers played in the first round of the NCAA Tournament in 2003.
“With us playing (the Salukis) in the tournament last year, we kind of have idea of what (the Illini) want to do,” Bryant said. “The motion offense is just as effective. They have good guards. We kind of learned their tendencies, knowing they want to spread the floor then get in the lane.”
MU advanced to the second round of the tournament with a 72-71 win.
Illinois hasn’t played since a 74-64 win against Memphis on Dec. 13. Freshman Richard McBride, playing in place of injured sophomore Derron Williams, had 22 points and made six 3-pointers.
Williams, who broke his jaw Dec. 11, scored eight points against the Tigers last season. He was leading the team in assists with 6.6 per game and was second on the team in scoring with 12.9 points per game when he was injured.
Junior forward Roger Powell leads the Illini with 14.3 points per game.