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Hoops Preview: Illinois is experienced, physical and itching to get back Braggin’ Rights

Led by freshman phenom Kofi Cockburn, Illinois rebounds well and goes to the rim often. That sounds like a formula for a nice, chippy rivalry game.

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

To be honest, I always kind of forget why Illinois is one of Missouri’s chief rivals. Maybe it’s because the two don’t play in both major revenue sports anymore and I can keep them out of sight, out of mind for most of the year. Or maybe it’s because many of my childhood memories involving Missouri and Illinois match ups involve beat downs on the gridiron. It’s hard to get too fired up about a team you’re consistently spanking.

However, once November rolls around every year, I get this itch in my skin. I eye up that late December Saturday, and my eye starts twitching ever so slightly. The closer we get, the worse it ticks. All that reserved hatred — the kind that bubbles up only in the presence of a sworn enemy — rises to the surface once more.

It’s Braggin’ Rights weekend, y’all.

Both Missouri and Illinois come to the Enterprise Center on different sides of the NCAA Tournament line. The Tigers are on the wrong side of things, while Illinois would likely sneak their way if this were March.

That may not be the case in true talent, though. Yes, Illinois nabbed a win over Michigan in Champaign, but also dropped a home game to 83rd (KP) ranked Miami. Illinois hasn’t yet nabbed a Quad 1 road win, though it got close against Maryland, and has generally played a weak schedule.

That’s saying nothing of Missouri, though. The Tigers have actually played a sightly worse schedule and only tote a road win over Temple (still Quad 1) and a near-upset of Xavier to counteract their home loss to Charleston Southern.

In short, both Missouri and Illinois are highly flawed teams looking to prove they’re better than their early returns have shown.

The Scout

The Starters

Position Missouri (6-4) Illinois (8-3)
Position Missouri (6-4) Illinois (8-3)
PG Dru Smith (Rs. Jr., 6'3", 203) Ayo Dosunmu (So., 6'5" 185)
CG Mark Smith (Jr., 6'5", 220) Trent Frazier (Jr., 6'2", 175)
WING Kobe Brown (Fr., 6'7", 240) Da'Monte Williams (Jr., 6'3", 210)
PF Mitchell Smith (Jr., 6'10", 221) Giorgi Bezhanishvili (So. 6'9", 235)
POST Jeremiah Tilmon (Jr., 6'10", 260) Kofi Cockburn (Fr., 7'0", 290)

Note: These starting lineups are projected.

The Fighting Illini aren’t the deepest team Missouri will face this year, but they are absolutely loaded on the front end.

Freshman Kofi Cockburn is looking like a future star, averaging a double-double and claiming four Big 10 Freshman of the Week honors (out of six possible weeks). Cockburn is an efficient shooter, a relentless rebounder and has a domineering physical presence on the block for the Illini. He’s flanked on the high post by sophomore Giorgi Bezhanishvili, who isn’t quite as intimidating, but is a sneaky effective player. He shoots 50 percent from long-range (in limited tries, mind you) and crashes the offensive glass to the tune of an 11 percent OR%.

The Illini’s back court is fronted by (maybe?) future NBA guard Ayo Dosunmu, who returned to Champaign after an up-and-down freshman year. He’s the leading minutes-getter for Illinois and is likely a little better than his 51.9 true shooting percentage. Combined with certified Mizzou Killer Trent Frazier, the Illini starting five may be one of the two or three best the Tigers have seen this year. Da’Monte Williams rounds things out, though he’s more useful to Illinois on the defensive end, and struggles with his jump shot.

Off the bench is where things get tricky. Senior Andres Feliz is a guard in the Jordan Geist mold — the type of hard-rebounding, get-to-the-rim offensive guy that drives opponents nuts. He boasts the team’s third-best defensive rebounding rate and gets to the foul line better than anyone aside from Cockburn. Sophomore Alan Griffin is the sniper off the bench, taking nearly 60 percent of his shots from deep and hitting on close to 38 percent. Senior Kipper Nichols and freshman Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk round out the nine-man rotation, though the latter doesn’t offer the Illini much help on the offensive side and the former is mostly effective when gifted trips to the foul line.

The thing to note that may surprise you about the Illini: they rank close to dead last (349th) in the amount of points scored from deep. More than 60 percent of their points come from two-point range. That may surprising considering Trent Frazier has averaged close to 5,000% in his two previous Braggin’ Rights games, but of the three players to have shot more than 11 threes on the year (Dosunmu, Griffin, Frazier), only Griffin averages above 36 percent.

In short, the Illini mostly run with a seven-to-eight man rotation (Bosmans-Verdonk only gets about a tenth of available minutes) that’s front-loaded with players who are hard-nosed, pesky on the glass and dead set on creating efficient shots close to the rim. Shapes up for a chippy matchup, huh?

When Missouri has the ball...

Missouri Offense vs. Illinois Defense

Team Adj. Eff. Poss. Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Team Adj. Eff. Poss. Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Missouri 103.1 (110) 18.1 (266) 48.4 (202) 21.7 (284) 30.1 (122) 32.7 (162) 26.6 (336) 54.8 (40) 73.7 (78) 6.7 (41) 8.5 (117)
Illinois 92.7 (50) 16.3 (39) 47.4 (121) 17.8 (266) 23.5 (39) 17.4 (1) 31.9 (133) 47.1 (117) 69.7 (173) 6.1 (279) 7.1 (298)
Missouri v Temple
One-time Illini Mark Smith is back over 40 percent from three on the season. Can he have a hot night against his old team?
Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

What to Watch | Have at least one (preferably more!) hot shooter

Illinois’ defense doesn’t leap off the page in terms of raw production, but they do two things very well — they rebound (duh) and they don’t foul (best in the country in free throws attempted per field goal attempt). The Tigers aren’t great at either, so this seems like a concrete edge for the Illini.

It may sound simple, but the Tigers need at least one hot hand to make some jump shots. Despite Jeremiah Tilmon’s recent struggles, the Tigers are still strongest at the rim. If the Tigers want to neutralize some of Illinois’ size and continue that advantage, they’ll need to have someone to find on the perimeter. In all six of the Tigers’ wins, they’ve had at least one person make 50 percent of their threes. The cause and effect of that tidbit is dicey, I’ll admit, but sometimes it’s as simple as, “make shots, win games.”

When Missouri has at least one guy humming from deep, the rest of their congealed offense opens up. Even the slightest uptick in jump-shooting could be enough of a difference in this game.

When Illinois has the ball...

Illinois Offense vs. Missouri Defense

Team Adj. Eff. Poss. Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Team Adj. Eff. Poss. Length eFG% TO% OR% FTA/FGA 3P% 2P% FT% Blk% Stl%
Illinois 108.2 (35) 17.8 (233) 52 (91) 21.7 (287) 40.7 (2) 39 (54) 29.7 (279) 54.8 (39) 72.9 (96) 5.1 (11) 10.2 (261)
Missouri 90.3 (28) 17.9 (283) 42.6 (13) 21.8 (73) 23.1 (27) 35.8 (254) 27.9 (32) 43.1 (35) 74.6 (315) 9.6 (129) 9.9 (118)
COLLEGE BASKETBALL: DEC 11 Michigan at Illinois
Kofi Cockburn is dominant down low, but he and the rest of his teammates are vulnerable to the turnover.
Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

What to Watch | Can the Tigers create extra possessions via turnover?

Here’s a mind-blowing stat for you. You ready? Out of the 11 players who have played in a game for the Fighting Illini, 10 have higher turnover rates than assist rates. The lone exception? Coach’s son Tyler Underwood, who plays the fewest minutes on the team. And you thought Missouri had issues taking care of the ball!

With Cockburn and Bezhanishvili down low, the Illini are elite at creating second chances off of misses. They’re not great in terms of raw efficiency, but they drag out possessions and allow their big men to work on the glass. In order for the Tigers to combat that, they’ll need to work the Illini ball-handlers. If the Tigers can win the turnover battle (and capitalize by making shots on those turnovers), that could neutralize Illinois’ advantage on the boards.

KenPom predicts...

Illinois 66, Missouri 64 | Missouri has flashed potential against better teams than Illinois, but also dropped a home game to one of the weakest units in Division I. Illinois has stacked some impressive early wins, but is prone to defensive lapses and poor ball control. As Sam has been fond of saying this year, all college teams are varying degrees of bad. Both Missouri and Illinois occupy a space where the bad teams actually start to get a little better. It’s looking like a coin toss type game in St. Louis, though Illinois gets the edge for being more well-balanced on both ends of the court.