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The Illinois Fighting Illini, A Preview of Braggin' Rights

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Previewing Missouri's next non-conference opponent, the Fighting Illini from Champaign-Urbana.

Jack Peglow

In what is normally the most anticipated non-conference basketball game seems be being met with a collective meh based largely on the poor start the Tigers are off to. For others, they don't even pay attention until this game, so for those who haven't been paying attention... THE SEASON IS GOING GREAT NOTHING TO WORRY ABOUT LETS TALK ABOUT ILLINOIS.

Presenting the Illinois Fighting Illini

location: Champaign, Illinois

Illinois has a bit more an aggrandized version of "famous alumni" than the previous two opponents. Notably 10 Nobel Prize winners, which just beat out Elons total of none. 11 Pulitzer prize winners, just nudging out Xaviers zero. You like movies? Ang Lee (director: Brokeback Mountain, Life of Pi), Mary Elizabeth Mastriantonio (actress: Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, The Abyss), Nick Offerman (duh - Ron Swanson!) and Alan Ruck (Hey it's Cameron from Ferris Bueller). Hell, they even had 6 astronauts.  Many many many CEO's, lots of politicians, lots of football, basketball and baseball players too. Basically just a lot more graduates at a state university vs private institutions, enough to warrant their own Alumni Page on Wikipedia.

At the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign they pride themselves on being good at school and things, but we're in the SEC and we know what's really important is football. And the Illini are Bowl eligible this year for the first time in a few years (after beating Penn State and Northwestern to get there at the end of the season) and will participate in the Zaxby's Heart of Dallas Bowl on December 26th against Louisiana Tech. They also beat Minnesota, who Missouri plays in the Citrus Bowl. Huh. That's funny.

Fortunately for Mizzou fans, they never have to worry about a trip to Champaign. Because for the foreseeable future, this game will be played at the Kiel Center Savvis Center Scottrade Center in St. Louis, MO.

Instead of Champaign

St. Louis, MO! City of dreams. Or at the very least, the city where I currently dream when I sleep there at night. There is no truth to the rumors that I like to set things in St. Louis on fire, I'm not sure where those rumors came from. I do know lots of very good places to eat in St. Louis. And good places to get a cocktail (after the game). JuniperPlanters HouseMission Taco Joint, and Bogarts BBQ are amongst my favorites. There's also a lot of good beer joints, with Civil Life BrewingPerennial Artisan AlesUrban Chestnut and 4 Hands Brew Co all relatively recent start ups that are doing very well.

The Busch Bud Light Braggin' Rights Game has been played in St. Louis since the inaugural 1980 game, unranked Illinois won that game against the #14 Tigers by 22 points. And in a sense, the Illini have been torturing Mizzou fans ever since winning 21 of the 33 meetings. Missouri has won 4 of the last 5 games, and was close to making it five straight before freshman Johnathan Williams III fouled Tracy Abrams with just under 5 seconds to play, and Abrams sank both shots to win the game.  The four years before that were nice though.

About their basketball team


Illinois has had a bit of an up and down start to the season. They started off really well, culminating with a 6-0 record and a win over Baylor (who is 9-1 and just outside the top 25 right now). After the high of beating a good Baylor team, Illinois dropped 3 of their next 4. Two of the losses were understandable, losing to Miami and Villanova is easy to do. Both are in the top 15, and Villanova is a legit Final Four contender. Losing to Oregon this year, yeah that's like losing to a team as bad as Missouri. Hmmmm....

The Illini are led by senior Rayvonte Rice who averages a robust 17.3 points per game while getting 6.5 rebounds per contest at the same time. All the while shooting almost 50% from the field. He's having what you might call a "Good" season. The next guy to keep an eye on is super sophomore Malcolm Hill, who is getting 13 points per, and 5.6 rebounds. Nnannnannna (i don't think I spelled that right) Egwu is one of the few reliable interior players, and usually hovers around 27 minutes, 8 points and 6 boards. Coach John Groce is in year 3, and relies on a guard heavy lineup to shoot well from the outside in order to win games. We'll see how they matchup with our team of youngsters who don't shoot well and sometimes defend!

Now for a closer look at Illinois, let's talk to somebody who knows them best...

Q&A With The Champaign Room

My thanks to Jim Vainisi, the Editor-in-Chief from, for taking time to not only answer questions for this preview, but for also answering questions on Rock M Radio Episode 12. If you haven't already give it a listen. If you have, thanks!

RockMNation: In year 3 of the John Groce tenure, what are the traits of a John Groce coached team? And how does he build a roster to fit his system?

Jim Vainisi: That's a good question. Groce really hasn't been able to properly run his system at Illinois because of the personal he inherited from Bruce Weber. You'll need to look back at his Ohio teams to really understand what a "John Groce team" is. His Bobcat squads were athletic, versatile, ferocious on the defensive end, and they played up-tempo.

What does he need to do this at Illinois? First and foremost, he needs to find a playmaker at PG; Groce views this as the most important position on the floor. The player has to be an above average-great decision maker in addition to being a legitimate scoring threat; that certainly limits the options when recruiting. The good news is it sounds like Illinois may land that player sometime in the next few days (!!). Marcus LoVett is a 2015 G at Chicago's Morgan Park HS-he's incredible and you should watch his YouTube highlights.

Next he needs versatile, athletic defenders on the wings who can knock down any shot on the court. Kendrick Nunn, Malcolm Hill, Aaron Jordan ('15), Jalen Coleman-Lands ('15), D.J. Williams ('15) all fit this bill and he's had no problem finding these "right fits" out on the recruiting trail. Finally, there needs to be an athletic big man anchoring the middle. He's still looking for that one!

One more thing to note-Groce was petty much the one responsible for Ohio State's 2007 recruiting class of Greg Oden, Daequan Cook, Mike Conley Jr., and David Lighty. I think, if all goes according to plan, you'll eventually see some teams that resemble Thad Matta's Buckeyes.

RMN: Most Missouri fans will remember Rayvonte Rice (Illini's leading scorer) from last season, who are the next few guys that Mizzou will need to worry about on the offensive end?

Vainisi: The three guys you need to look out for are senior SF Rayvonte Rice (as you mentioned), sophomore PF Malcolm Hill, and sophomore SG Kendrick Nunn.

Rice has been fantastic for Illinois this year. He led the team in scoring last year, but the scary thing about him is that he's been more efficient this year. He scored a lot of points last season, but he took so many shots since he was the team's only offense. This year, opposing teams aren't able to load up the lane because they have to respect the shooters at the 3-point arch. He's had a lot more space to operate as a result. Rice is currently averaging 17.8PPG, 6.7RPG, and 2.4SPG, and 1.7APG.

Malcolm Hill may be the team's most important player outside of Rice; he's a complete mismatch on the offensive end. Out of all the returning freshman, Hill was the most likely to make the "sophomore leap" and he's certainly done so thus far. He's averaging 14.2PPG, 6.3RPG, and 1.3APG on the season. The sky is the limit for him and I fully expect him to be an All-B1G caliber player as an upper-classman.

Finally, Kendrick Nunn may be Illinois' most versatile player on the wing. Nunn had a minor knee procedure during the offseason and there were some questions about his health early on, but it appears that he's at or near 100% again. The fan-favorite may be Illinois' best 3-point shooter-he's absolutely deadly from the corners. He's listed at 6'3, but his wingspan makes him an above average-excellent defender on the perimeter. Nunn started the year as 6th man, but he was inserted into the starting lineup for the first time against Oregon because transfer SG Aaron Cosby has struggled mightily over the past few weeks

RMN: Missouri's best player has been Johnathan Williams III, how will Illinois look to take the ball out of his hands?

Vainisi: I gotta admit--I don't know a whole lot about Williams. However my guess is that Malcolm Hill, Leron Black (freshman PF), and Nnanna Egwu (senior C) will all share the defensive responsibilities for the Illini. A Hill/Williams battle would probably result in offensive mismatches for each team, but Black and Egwu should be able to hold their own.

Illinois' front court is probably the biggest area of weakness and the Tigers may have a chance if they can rack up some early fouls. Egwu is one of the better defensive players in the entire country, but there's a pretty large talent gap when he's on the bench. Sophomores Maverick Morgan and Austin Colbert haven't taken "the leap" and the Illini are very vulnerable down low when they're in the game.

RMN: What are the expectations for the season with Illini fans? Realistically, where do you see this team (Illinois) landing at season's end?

Vainisi: Coming into the season, the general expectation was for this team to make the tournament. The Illini were squarely "on pace" for this goal up until they dropped a surprising game to Oregon this past weekend. They've now lost three out of the past five with losses coming to then #15 Miami and #7 Villanova in addition to the Ducks. If all goes according to plan, the Illini will finish the OOC schedule with a record of 10-3; that's less than ideal (11-2 was the goal), but it still puts them in a good position heading into conference play.

In my opinion, this is definitely a tournament team. There are definitely concerns amongst the fan base right now, but Groce always has his teams playing their best basketball towards the end of the year. Look for the Illini to finish the year in top 5-6 of the Big Ten in addition to a decent tournament seed.

RMN: Okay, so with all that, how do you see this game being played out? Final score? And one wild prediction of something we'll see but won't expect?

Vainisi: I think this game will be slightly closer than most people think. I know it's been rough start to the season for Mizzou, but I think you'll see them play their best game to date. I'm expecting this to be a back-and-forth affair throughout the first half but, in the end, Illinois' combination of Rayvonte Rice, Malcolm Hill, and Kendrick Nunn will prove too much to overcome.

Illinois 76, Missouri 64

Wild Prediction: Freshman Leron Black will come off the bench and log a double-double (points/rebounds).

Again, thanks to Jim and The Champaign Room for taking the time. I did a Q&A with him for their site, if you haven't already you can check that out too!

To wrap up: some keys to the game...

1) Limit Rayvonte Rice

Rice is their best player, and unlike anyone on Missouri, an efficient high level scorer. Rice is a big physical guard, who's natural matchup vs. the Tigers is Montaque Gill-Caesar. I imagine you'll see Teki guard him, you'll see Namon Wright guard him, you'll see Deuce Bello on him too. The guy I like the most to defend him might be D'Angelo Allen. Rice excels when he can attack the rim from closer in, almost like a mid-post up game. Smaller guards will have trouble with him in that way, so I do like Missouri's bigger guards and even smaller big guys to try to slow down his production.

2) Keep Their Scoring Trends Going Down

After starting the season on an offensive tear the Illini have struggled to consistently score the ball, and that issue happened as soon as they started playing power conference teams. Missouri isn't a great defensive team, but they can help keep this trend going, and that will give them a shot to win the game. The magic number for me is going to be about 65. I feel good that Missouri, on an average shooting day, can get more than 60 points vs the Illini defense. However if the Tiger defenders don't cause enough disruption Illinois is a team that can get to 80 points in a hurry. Keep them in the mid-60s and you're in this game.

3) Win the Interior

The Illini aren't a big team. They're very guard oriented, but those guards rebound well. Missouri isn't a team that is going to overwhelm anyone with their play out of the post, but this is a game where Kim Anderson can get away with more minutes from Jakeenan Gant and D'Angelo Allen, and leave JW3 on Egwu. With that lineup Missouri should be able to win on the inside by getting offensive rebounds and getting to the free throw line.

For Missouri to win this game, they need to win the FT battle, the offensive rebounding battle, limit Rayvonte Rice and play tough defense. That's not an insurmountable task and they're capable of playing well enough to win this game. Missouri just needs to find a way to play as close to 40 minutes of solid basketball as they've come to date. Is it likely to get done? We haven't seen the evidence to believe it yet, but this is just the kind of game where a young team can gain that confidence. They'll have their full slate of player available. They're rested. And they should be ready. They've had a week to prepare.

There's no reason this team should have a poor performance. Now what a good performance is for this game is to be competitive. They don't need a win, but they've got to start showing that they can stay in a game against a power conference team and this stage would be a good time to show that. Illinois is a team that could be ripe for that sort of win, they won't overwhelm you in any aspect of the game. They've got a middling RPI in the 70s, they're currently 35 in KenPom, but they also haven't performed that well against the meat of their schedule. I don't expect Missouri to win, but they absolutely have no excuse not to be competitive.

I'm predicting a score of 74-60.

I know it's the "Bud Light" Braggin' Rights now, but for me it will always be the Busch Braggin' Rights.

Old Braggin Rights