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Braggin’ Rights must mean more for Missouri trio with Illinois ties

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The matchup with Illinois should present more motivation for the three Tigers who almost suited up in the orange and blue together.

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

As much as Missouri men’s basketball players Mark Smith, Jeremiah Tilmon and Javon Pickett say the annual Braggin’ Rights matchup with Illinois is just another game, it’s clear that doesn’t truly encapsulate what the game should mean to them.

Not only do the trio all hail from the Illinois side of the St. Louis area (Smith from Edwardsville, Tilmon from East St. Louis and Pickett from Belleville), but at one point in time, the trio were all on a path to suiting up for the Illini.

Smith, Tilmon and Pickett were Class of 2017 commits, but when head coach John Groce was replaced by Brad Underwood and Missouri hired Cuonzo Martin, Tilmon and Pickett flipped their commitments to the Tigers. Tilmon joined Missouri right away for the 2017-18 season, while Pickett reclassified to the Class of 2018.

Smith, for his part, stayed committed to Illinois and played in Champaign his freshman season. He even played a part in the Illini’s 70-64 Braggin’ Rights win in 2017, recording 11 points and two steals, though Tilmon claims to not remember Smith’s role in handing the Tigers the loss.

“I was actually just talking to (Smith) about that yesterday. I was like, did he sit out the game freshman year?” Tilmon said. “But the whole time he played (and) I didn’t even remember that.”

But on March 5, 2018, Smith decommitted from Illinois, citing his fit in Underwood’s system, and committed to Missouri a little over a month later. By the time the Tigers and the Illini met for the 2018 edition of Braggin’ Rights on Dec. 22, the same trio that looked destined to help lead Illinois into a new era were instead in the starting lineup for Missouri.

So yes, the approach to winning a basketball game won’t change, as Pickett says, but in terms of the environment they’ll play in Saturday, Smith, Tilmon and Pickett know it won’t be like any other environment they walk into.

“I’m expecting them to be saying boo, and it’s my job to go out there and just do me, play my ball, play my game so we can hopefully get the win,” Tilmon said.

“I was just a great feeling,” Smith said. “I’ll always remember that feeling, just coming out and hearing all the boos (from Illinois fans last season).”

The importance of Smith and Tilmon in this matchup can’t be understated. With the Tigers still in need of higher-profile wins, especially since the loss to Charleston Southern on Dec. 3, Smith’s scoring ability from the perimeter and Tilmon’s presence around the rim will be crucial in securing a second straight Braggin’ rights win.

Smith has held up his end of the bargain lately, scoring below nine points just once in his last four games. His scoring prowess was on full display Sunday against Southern Illinois, when he poured in a game-high 23 points on 8 of 11 shooting, including 7 of 9 from long range.

Tilmon wasn’t nearly as effective against the Salukis, as he scored just two points on just two shots while pulling in just one rebound. It was a disappointing performance for Tilmon, and it looks especially bad considering Southern Illinois didn’t have a player on the roster who presents him with as big a challenge as the Illini’s star freshman, Kofi Cockburn.

Martin isn’t too concerned with Tilmon’s scoring, since he feels Tilmon’s low-post game presents a problem against anyone and will continue to open up when Missouri’s 3-point shooting improves. But, with the way Cockburn has performed so far this season, Martin knows Tilmon will be on one side of probably the toughest matchup in the game and has to play at the same level defensively as he’s shown he can all season.

Pickett’s role has changed since the two teams last met, but that might be for the better.

He looked out of rhythm offensively to start the season and was held scoreless twice in the Tigers’ first six games, which caused Martin to move him to the bench and into more of a spark-plug role. The switch seems to be working, though, as Pickett has averaged almost 13 points per game in wins over Charleston Southern, Temple (in which he scored a season-high 16) and Southern Illinois.

So even though Pickett most likely won’t start against Illinois, the defense and energy he always brings and his newfound offensive edge could combine to present a big problem.

“Just go out there and play how I play every game, bring that type of energy,” Pickett said. “Just do what we have to do, execute our plays to win. That’s our main goal.”

Braggin’ Rights is a game Missouri fans always circle on their calendars. It matters.

Torrence Watson, who hails from St. Louis, understands how much a win over Illinois would mean to this team that’s still looking to build its resume for a possible postseason run.

The fact the Illini is arguably the chief rival on their schedule isn’t lost on the Tigers, and knowing the opposing crowd’s reaction to the former Illinois Class of ‘17 trio, Watson and Co. feel that much more motivated for the St. Louis showdown.

“Just playing for Jeremiah, Mark and Javon, because I’m sure they’re going to get booed tomorrow at some point,” Watson said. “Just playing for them, that even brings a lot more energy to us as well, makes us want to play even harder.”