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A Braggin’ Rights win would put Missouri’s season back on track

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Missouri has struggled to gain momentum in the non-conference schedule. A second consecutive win over the Illini would help.

NCAA Basketball: Illinois at Missouri Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

Let’s start this clearly demarcated basketball column with a note about football.

When you think of Missouri football right now, what’s a word or two that comes to mind? Give it a moment. You can always go to the next paragraph when you’re finished.

For this writer — and many others, I’d posit — the word that leaps to the front of the mind is, “excitement.” It may be that the new coach smell still hasn’t worn off, or that that Early Signing Day is tomorrow and Tiger fans are giddy to see who Coach Drinkwitz will be able to retain. But it just feels good to talk about Missouri football right now.

That wasn’t the case for much of 2019. There were many days weeks when most of us would rather just forget the existence of Tiger football, much less write/talk about it. The word to describe the situation at the time would’ve been something closer to, “apathy.” And that’s the worst way you can feel about a team. It’s when the fans lose heart and, eventually, interest. That sort of feeling can creep into a locker room and poison a program from the inside out.

It’s probably not fair to say Missouri fans are apathetic about basketball. We’re all very familiar with what apathy looks like in Mizzou Hoops, and for all the frustrations of the current season, this certainly isn’t it. Sure, fan interest still may be dwindling in the wake of 2017’s sugar rush, but there’s still a sense of anticipation about Cuonzo Martin’s Tigers. People still believe in this roster. While there’s belief, apathy is kept at bay.

That being said, it hasn’t been the greatest of seasons to stave off disinterest. Missouri came into the campaign with high internal hopes and a prove-em-wrong attitude that has, so far, been mostly talk. The Tigers have a solid road win under their belt and looked (mostly) competitive against some of better teams in the country. But a heinous home loss to Charleston Southern and an offense that has yet to find its groove 10 games into the season have kept a lot of casual fans at arm’s length.

Seems like there’s no better time for a win over an old rival, right?

Even in the midst of the darkest days of modern Missouri basketball, Braggin’ Rights was immune to apathy. Sure, go ahead and cite attendance numbers at me in the comments. I know they were down for a few years. But you can’t look my profile picture in the digital eyes and tell me you and almost every other Tiger fan out there weren’t at least keeping an eye on the proceedings in St. Louis. Few things can boil a True Son or Daughter’s blood faster than a run in with the University of Illinois.

Saturday’s matchup isn’t exactly a tossup, but it’s much closer to one than you might believe. There’s no doubt that Illinois has been the better team this year. They sit at 8-3 with two of their losses coming to Top 15 teams on the road. Sure, that Miami, Fl. home loss is a bit unsightly, but the win over Michigan makes up for it. They’re 32nd in NCAA’s NET and 39th in KenPom.

And yet, KenPom still has this as a two-point game (favoring the Illini.) Despite Missouri’s myriad struggles this year — woeful three-point shooting, inopportune fouls, the eternal war against turnovers — the Tigers have near even shot at going to St. Louis and bagging their 14th win in the Braggin’ Rights series.

A win like that would be just what the doctor ordered for a team still holding hopes for the NCAA Tournament. It would be another Quadrant 1 win to add to their CVC and would undoubtedly rejuvenate a fan base that thought it was past losses to directional city schools (at home, no less.) A win over a pretty good Illinois team, along with a final non-conference tune up against Chicago State, would put the Tigers squarely back on track heading into conference play. The record may not be what they’d like, but the SEC is soft this year, and a team with Missouri’s defense and (potential) momentum could make some noise.

So as the Tigers count down the days until their matchup with the second-gaudiest orange uniforms on the schedule, they’d do well to take note of their compatriots in the football program. Excitement is high and fans are engaged. A win over Illinois would get the Tigers one step closer to being on that same level.