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The script has flipped in this year’s Braggin’ Rights game

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As the favorite, Missouri faces a downtrodden Illini team, but they shouldn’t be underestimated.

NCAA Basketball: Stephen F. Austin at Missouri Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

The last time Missouri won a Braggin’ Rights contest coincided with Jabari Brown’s coming out party. It also was the last time Mizzou was the better team.

The slide of Mizzou basketball happened swiftly and you can almost pin point it to their loss to Illinois in 2014, the year after Brown’s breakout. Missouri was riding a 10 game winning streak to open the season, and proceeded to 13-12 down the stretch before getting bounced by Southern Miss at home in the NIT.

That season sewed the feelings of distrust between Frank Haith and the Missouri fan base culminating in Haith moving on to Tulsa through the back door and the Tigers turning to Kim Anderson. There were three competitive losses in the Braggin’ Rights games under Anderson, but in each the Tigers came in as big underdogs despite the Illini facing their own backwards slide.

Two struggling programs led to a steep drop in attendance and both programs reaching out to hire new coaches. And while the turnaround for Cuonzo Martin has been fairly swift, Brad Underwood has hit the regular stumbling blocks coaches face when they are tasked with turning around a program.

Illinois has been on a downward trend since that game in a lot of respects. Before getting fired John Groce rebounded on the back of Malcolm Hill a little bit, but it wasn’t enough to save his job. And in turning to Underwood Illinois is certain to be contending for B1G championships and soon. Not this season though. The Illini are certain to be an enigma relying upon youth at important positions and learning a completely new system and style.

And to form, the Illini are losers of five of their last seven games and six of the seven have been close. So it’s not like they’re getting blown out, rather they’re doing just enough to lose, which is a refrain many Mizzou fans can align themselves with after watching their own bad team in recent years.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Northwestern Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

Opposites Attract

Perhaps my favorite storyline of these two rival programs picking new coaches is the utter contrast in styles they offer. Cuonzo Martin, known for his blue collar defense and rebounding style of basketball, versus Brad Underwood, one of the higher octane offensive coaches in the game.

You talk about pace and efficiency and Illinois picked a guy who’s offenses have been both. Their pace is above average and the efficiency has been exceptional. Even with a roster of fairly young talent Underwood has made sure the Illini are playing with pace at 74.1 AdjTempo. Meanwhile, with a roster that CAN run the Tigers are at 66.9 in the same metric.

The crazy part of Underwoods new venture in Champaign is while the pace has been there the offensive efficiency has not. And when you look beyond the initial tempo numbers you see that somehow Illinois’ is 20th in defensive possession length at 15.7 seconds. That’s, uh, really bad.

Meanwhile the Tigers are pretty equal in the breakdown of time of possession, which I guess you can consider a good thing because maybe that means they’re controlling tempo. Even if it’s slower.

However, Illinois is truly elite in two areas this year. Turnovers and Offensive Rebounds.

This is the area where it’s going to get interesting in a hurry. Mizzou is bad in the offensive turnover percentage but they’re a good rebounding team. So strength vs strength and strength vs weakness. And in all likelihood it won’t matter because in the end maybe Mizzou’s shooters just torch the nets.

Projected Starters

POS/MIZ/ILL

  • PG: Blake Harris v Tejon Lucas
  • CG: Kassius Robertson v Mark Smith
  • WING: Jordan Barnett v Aaron Jordan
  • CF: Kevin Puryear v Mark Alstork
  • POST: Jeremiah Tilmon v Michael Finke

The Illini start four guards and bring Teki-killer Leron Black off the bench. The matchups will be interesting to watch because you’ll see a team that favors smaller lineups versus a team which has a lot of size. If Mizzou is able to dominate the glass early you wonder if Underwood counters with Black and Finke on the inside to try to nullify that advantage. Conversely, if Mizzou struggles to limit Illinois offensively with their four guards you wonder if Cuonzo tries to play a little smaller and attempt to negate that advantage.

NCAA Basketball: Missouri vs Illinois Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

Nobody on the Illini roster plays more than 65% of the minutes, so look for Illinois to rely heavily on bench players Black, freshman guards Trent Frazier and Demontie Williams, and sophomore swing forward Kipper Nichols. Overall there are nine players who average at least 48% of their available minutes, so they roll nine deep and stick with those nine in regular rotation.

Missouri meanwhile has 10 players who play between 21.4% (Nikko) and 79.8% (Robertson). They seem to be a little more consistent in the top 5-6 guys but rely heavily on Robertson and Barnett. Overall it won’t be a good sign if Mizzou is playing small. Their best lineups are with Barnett and Robertson at the two and three spot, with the depth on the inside of forcing tough matchups against Tilmon, Jontay Porter, Reed Nikko and Puryear.

Puryear is a player to watch as he’s averaged 15 points in his Braggin’ Rights contests the last couple years and he’s been in a bit of a scoring funk scoring just 14 points in his last three games. Now would be a good game for Puryear to break out because he’s the ultimate ‘tweener’ on Mizzou’s roster and the Illini have a roster full of those guys, so the matchup would fit.

Picks

This is going to be a close game.

I’ve seen overconfident Missouri fans predicting blow outs, but part of the problem with those sorts of predictions is they just don’t happen. Even last season when Mizzou was at its rock bottom, they still only lost to the Illini by nine.

KenPom projections have Mizzou +5, Vegas currently is about +4. I’m in the same ballpark. I could see this stretching out to more if Mizzou is consistent enough down the stretch. If they’re capable of controlling the ball in the last 8-10 minutes of the game it could get away from Illinois. But if the script for Mizzou’s turnovers against pressure stay the course there’s going to be a need to hit big shots at key times in the last few minutes.

I lean towards the latter with how things have gone, in the end I think Mizzou wins a close game, I’ll say 86-81.