COLUMBIA — It’s been a while since Missouri could brag to Illinois on the basketball court.
Not only do the Fighting Illini have 25 wins in the 37 games the two teams have played, they have won the past seven Braggin’ Rights games in St. Louis. In addition to that, in the 2004-05 season, Illinois went 37-2 and lost in the national championship game to North Carolina.
MU’s most recent victory against the Illini wasn’t even in this decade. It came in 1999 by a score of 78-72.
But a lot has changed in this rivalry, and going into this season’s game on Saturday night the matchup appears even more different.
Redshirt senior Brian Randle is the only player remaining from Illinois’ run to the title game, and coach Mike Anderson and his fast-paced basketball philosophy will be playing the Illini for just the second time.
The Tigers came close to victory in Anderson’s first Braggin’ Rights game last season, but guard Stefhon Hannah lost control of the ball and MU was unable to attempt a final shot in a 73-70 loss.
That play is still on Hannah’s mind.
“You got the ball in your hands at the end, and you mess up or you make something. You’re going to remember it,” Hannah said. “It’s still a thought in my head. It’s going through my head every day.”
Forward DeMarre Carroll said Hannah has been excited about the Illinois game, and that the guard might be looking for a bit of redemption from last year.
“He had the last shot, and he felt like he lost the game, but he really didn’t lose the game,” Carroll said of Hannah’s performance against Illinois last season. “Collectively, as a team, we lost the game. He’s real hyped-up, and I think he’s ready to get out there. I think he should have a special game.”
Anderson understands why Hannah could have those types of feelings about last season’s close contest, and his role at the end of the game.
“Most kids in the heat of the moment, you’re going to feel that way,” Anderson said. “But I don’t think that play was the difference in the game. We had opportunities, we had momentum, but I think that was just one of those plays that happened at the end.”
Hannah losing the ball at the end of last season’s game shouldn’t take anything away from what his total performance in St. Louis. He scored 23 points and was the only Missouri player in double figures. This year though, Hannah will likely have more help from his teammates.
The Tigers have developed some depth and are a more balanced team than they were last season against Illinois. Carroll, who is the leading scorer for Missouri this year, will be a big help. He was unable to play in last season’s game because he was forced to sit out after he transferring from Vanderbilt.
Guard Keon Lawrence was still in the process of recovering from a foot injury when Missouri played Illinois last year. This season, Lawrence is at healthy and scoring 11 points per game. And forward Leo Lyons has blossomed, increasing his scoring average by almost five points from last year.
Senior forward Marshall Brown has been a part of three Braggin’ Rights games, and he echoed a sentiment that has been floating around the Tigers’ basketball program this season. With the team in its second year under Anderson, it will be better because of last season’s experience.
“I feel like we’ve got a year under our belt so we kind of know how to approach the game this year, so I think that’s the biggest difference,” Brown said.
There is some extra motivation for Brown, since he has never defeated the Illini.
“I kind of want to get that off my chest,” he said. “I don’t want to go out losing four in a row to Illinois. It’s definitely a big game for us as a team. I feel like this is an opportunity for us to get a big win under our belt. I feel like we let some big wins slip away from us earlier in the season and this is our chance to get one.”
Missouri wants to win this game for a variety of reasons: ending a losing streak in a rivalry game, avenging a close loss last year. But the biggest reason is that the Tigers want another major non-conference victory to help propel them toward a NCAA Tournament bid.
“It’s just like we want to win,” Hannah said. “We’ve started off with a record that we didn’t want to start off with, so we’re trying to go into every game the same way. But this game, it’s in a bigger magnitude than every other game.”
Despite recent results, there is an aura of confidence around the Tigers as they head to St. Louis.
“This is a test for us,” Anderson said. “But I got a little bit better feel for our basketball team, and they’ve got a better feel for each other.”