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Finally healthy, Illinois is trying to make a move in the Big 10

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Yes, Missouri still has basketball games to play this season. Contrary to popular opinion the season is NOT over yet.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois vs Brigham Young Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

What was once a highly anticipated matchup between Mississippi River border rivals takes a big back seat on a night that features Louisville-Kentucky in the same time slot.

Missouri and Illinois enter the night both in need of a win, and the Fighting Illini are looking to make it four straight over the Tigers.

We know that Missouri has fallen on hard times, but there’s another coach in this rivalry coaching for his job. Under John Groce, the Illini haven’t exactly taken off, and even this year their 9-3 record has some shakiness to it. Nice wins over NC State, VCU, and BYU are saddled next to losses to Winthrop, Florida State and a throttling at the hands of West Virginia.

The Illini currently sit at 66th per Ken Pomeroy, which isn’t terrible and is certainly better than the No. 125 ranking they earned last year, but is that enough for Groce to stick around if he’s on the outside of the bubble at the end of the season?

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Maryland Tommy Gilligan-USA TODAY Sports

Groce is a good coach in a tough conference and has paid a dear price for having to endure some untimely injuries the past few years that have derailed seasons. This isn’t a blanket endorsement of the job he’s done — he’s been mostly okay while at Illinois but is that good enough for a school with the rich history the Illini have?

Groce has recruited better than Bruce Weber, but not as good as Bill Self, and he’s won less than both. He’s never finished above .500 in league play, and in four seasons he’s only particularly well once.

So it’s an important season for the Illini, and a loss to a team like Missouri would certainly put a big chip in the resume.

Some of the Illinois players you’ll know already.

  • The top guy is Malcolm Hill; Hill is a tough matchup for Missouri because he’s about the size of Kevin Puryear but is faster and more of a natural wing.
  • Leron Black, most notable for his clothesline takedown of Montaque Gill-Caesar two years ago, is second on the team in points and first in rebounds.
  • 12th-year senior (sixth, actually — it just feels like 12) Tracy Abrams is next in points on the team and the primary ball handler.
  • There are a couple other talented players who the Illini need more from: Jalen Coleman-Lands, Jaylon Tate and Mike Thorne. Michael Finke will be easy to identify, as he has amazing flowing locks! He also has a younger brother named Tim who has a Missouri offer. Tim goes to high school in Champaign. Seems a long shot to make him a Tiger, I’d say.
Depth Chart for Illinois

The starting five is mostly going to be the same. Where Illinois gets kind of fun to watch is when they play small and roll with Hill at the four. He’s impossible for most forwards to defend, so it’s really only fun for Illinois. Perhaps you’ll recall Hill blasting past Kevin Puryear last year in the same role.

If you recall the game last year, the Illini led by 13 at halftime before taking a 20-point lead into the second half. Then the Tiger shots stopped dropping, and Missouri stormed back to within five behind some hot shooting from Wes Clark.

That guy? Oh yeah, that guy.

The Tigers then had five possessions where they had a chance to further trim the lead and came up empty. Ultimately the Tigers were never able to get over the hump and Illinois hung on.

And if you want more bad memories, Dan Dakich was the color guy on the game.

It was a fun comeback, and reminiscent of many other early season contests for Mizzou where they fell behind big early, stormed back, and ultimately fell short. How about a changeup this year, eh?

WHAT TO EXPECT

Illinois isn’t a particularly definable team. They’re pretty good, but far from great. Per Pomeroy’s projections, they’re likely an NIT team at this point, as they’re expected to go around 18-13 with an 8-10 record in the conference. I kind of feel like that might not be enough for Groce to keep his job, but if they ride Malcolm Hill, and get some improvement on the interior from Finke, Maverick Morgan, Michael Thorne and Leron Black, they could be pretty good. They also need their guards to play better overall.

They’re still better than Missouri by about 100 spots in KenPom and are expected to win by seven points. Last year the teams were 113th and 195th heading into the game, the year before 39th and 160th. Still, each game has been hotly contested.

In the end, I’d expect both teams to miss a lot of shots, and whoever misses less is probably going to win. How’s that for analysis?

But that’s essentially where we are with Missouri basketball. The Tigers are either going to make some shots and make it interesting, or they’re going to shoot as poorly as ever, and it won’t be fun. Let’s pretend like they’re due for a good shooting night, right?

Mizzou Illinois KenPom Matchup

WHAT TO WATCH?

  1. Do the shots go in for Mizzou? We’ve seen enough of the Tigers this season to know they can be pretty good if Frankie Hughes, Cullen VanLeer and others are making outside shots. We also know the Tigers aren’t particularly a good enough offensive team to have any one player carry them for large stretches of time, or for them to be able to generate a lot of offense when shots are falling. Hopefully they’ll find some balance.
  2. Illinois eFG%. Illinois is a good offensive team, but not a great one. The Illini rely on Malcolm Hill, like a lot. Mizzou’s best answer might be the athleticism of Jordan Barnett to counter. Barnett is a good enough athlete and has the kind of length on the wing who might be able to bother Hill into a lot of missed shots. If that happens then I think the Tigers will have a pretty good shot to win the game. It would also help if Barnett scored, but I don’t want to get greedy here.
  3. Ball Control. The Illini aren’t a very strong ball handling team, and Missouri doesn’t really turn the ball over. With the emotions running a bit higher than usual, it’s likely the ball gets kicked around a little more than usual, and I think the Tigers can take advantage of it.
NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Illinois Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

This is a verrrrrry important game. The Tigers are slumping in a big way. Illinois is playing pretty well, though they haven't exactly been blowing the doors off of people. Both coaches are feeling some heat on their seat, but you’ve read enough here (and probably elsewhere) about the importance of this game for Kim Anderson.

Lose, and the Tigers are starting SEC play with a 6-6 record at best, meaning even if the KenPom projections underestimate Mizzou and the Tigers rip off six or seven SEC wins, they’re still only looking at a 13-win season. And it seems like a long shot to get to 13 from 6-6.

Beat Illinois, then beat Lipscomb, and suddenly some of those warm fuzzies might return enough to see those necessary six to seven wins in league play. Maybe people are feeling better at 14-15 wins.

Wednesday will be just the 10th time in the series where both teams enter the game without a national ranking (although that includes the last three years). Both programs are struggling, but only Missouri is truly at rock bottom, and the only way out of this is to start beating power conference teams. That starts with Illinois.