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Sometimes all you need is effort

For two years in a row Missouri looked like the less talented team in the Braggin’ Rights game. For the second straight year it didn’t matter.

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

Heading into the 2019 edition of the Braggin’ Rights game, there were a lot of reasons for Missouri fans to be nervous. The Tigers struggling offense had been erratic enough to drop a game to 293rd rated Charleston Southern, so anything was possible going into the biggest rivalry game on the schedule against Illinois.

Matt Harris and I previewed this game in our most recent podcast, and while Matt predicted a loss, I predicted a win by 6. I’m not here to gloat over Matt, it wasn’t a confident pick but more a contrarian one, but I thought Missouri might win and if they did it would be because of their toughness. I summed it up with a couple tweets as the game was getting going:

Playing against Missouri in basketball this year is akin to the duel Batman fought in Frank Miller’s the Dark Knight Returns, when he dragged a more powerful fighter down into the mud and immediately gouged his eyes with mud, giving him the advantage. Batman won that battle, proving it doesn’t have to be pretty. Mizzou has adopted the adage if you’re the opponent you’re going to hate playing us, but the style is worth it as long as you get the win.

Missouri has an advantage over Illinois right now

It’s not talent. Illinois runs out a likely first round draft pick in Ayo Dosunmu and a contender for newcomer of the year in the Big 10 in Kofi Cockburn. Missouri doesn’t have an NBA draft pick on the roster (I’m bullish on Dru Smith’s pro prospects but he’s not likely to get selected). The advantage they have is through the culture Cuonzo Martin has built at Missouri. For better or worse, he has guys who want to be there, and who want to play for him. He’s got buy in.

From last year’s post Braggin’ Rights column:

There’s no secret Martin is a tough dude. His story has been told multiple times over. When a team reflects their head coach, they can watch their second half lead lapse and be down to a team with momentum and not flinch. With 7:43 on the clock in the second half, Illinois’ Trent Frazier sank a tough layup in transition to put the Illini up a point. Their first lead since the first half, the building and Illini fans were buzzing. Martin and his team didn’t flinch. Instead they embarked on a 24-4 run which put the game so far out of reach the orange and blue side of the building started emptying out early.

This year you can write a nearly identical paragraph in describing the events of the game. Illinois took a 6 point lead at 19-13 after 12 minutes of play. The Tigers had been buoyed in the game by four three pointers made by some unusual suspects, Kobe Brown, Javon Pickett, and next Xavier Pinson. Pinson hit a three with the shot clock expiring to give the Mizzou offense life. From down 6 at 19-13 the Tigers would go eventually lead by 14 on a Jeremiah Tilmon put back, mostly by crushing one of the best rebounding teams in the country on the offensive glass, and in about 20 minutes of game action the Tigers had outscored Illinois by 20 points, 33-13.

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

In the second half Illinois made eight baskets, five of which came in the last two minutes. The only way the Illini stayed in the game was the free throw line, where they made 16-of-19 in the 2nd half alone.

It wasn’t enough.

It wasn’t enough because of Javon Pickett. For Pickett, this game is personal. Pickett wasn’t good enough for Brad Underwood, he was cut loose from this National Letter of Intent and took a prep year to sign with their rival. All Pickett did was score 17 points and add in 6 rebounds for the Tigers. Last year Pickett scored 16 points and grabbed four rebounds. So going against the coach who didn’t want him, he’s averaged 16.5 points and 5 rebounds, and won both games.

It’s personal for Jeremiah Tilmon, who gets booed with every touch after spurning Illinois to sign with Missouri. Tilmon battled a foot injury and foul trouble and was largely a non-factor in the game but he was important in limiting Cockburn on the inside and around the rim. He and Senior Reed Nikko harassed the young big into his worst shooting performance of the year.

It’s personal for Mark Smith also. He gets booed by Illinois fans as well. Smith transferred from Illinois after not finding it a good fit with the coaching staff. Both Braggin’ Rights games haven’t gone according to plan, as Smith has struggled to make any kind of scoring impact. He added just five points last year, and didn’t score yesterday, but did enough to cause Alan Griffin to lose his mind and pick up a technical foul as Missouri was securing the win.

Xavier Pinson wasn’t recruited by his home state school, instead he hit several big shots. You know who didn’t hit big shots? Literally ALL the guys Brad Underwood and his staff recruiting instead of the guys on Mizzou’s roster.

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

What Cuonzo Martin and the Tigers provide isn’t always pretty, and occasionally it’s really ineffective, but it is pure. It’s raw, and it’s based around passion, effort, and fight. The culture he’s built has shown up when they needed it to, and it’s a pretty good starting point.

Now about those jumpers...

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Yesterday at Rock M Nation

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