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Illinois might be the best team Missouri will play all season

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The Illini have talent and depth, and they’re confident following a win at Duke.

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

Everyone voted and decided they’d rather beat Georgia in football than beat Illinois in basketball. I personally think that’s wrong, not crazy, but wrong. I’d much rather beat Illinois, a team with whom you have more in common, than a very likely one-off win against a program whose playing on another level altogether.

Don’t get me wrong, beating Georgia would be great. But Illinois is Mizzou’s basketball peer, if only slightly ahead. Continuing to beat your peer, even in their best years (which this season is undoubtedly that for the Illini) goes a long way and can continue to elevate Mizzou regionally.

So let’s talk about the 6th ranked Illinois Fighting Illini.

They’re really good this year. After Mizzou beat Illinois in Braggin’ Rights last year, the Illini went on a very solid run, eventually landing ranked 30th in Kenpom. Most everyone expected projected NBA draft pick, Ayo Dosunmu, to turn pro. And he did, along with Kofi Cockburn, the bullish freshman center who boosted the interior attack. But then a wrench in the plans... both came back. Illinois also enrolled two top 50 freshmen. Add it all up and you get a team who looks the part of a Final Four contender.

So while Mizzou is just hoping to reset themselves after not being fully healthy in any of their years under Cuonzo Martin, Illinois is looking at making a run at a Big 10 title and more.


The Scout

The Starters

Position Missouri Illinois
Position Missouri Illinois
PG Xavier Pinson (Jr., 6'2", 170) Trent Frazier (Sr. 6'2, 175)
CG Dru Smith (Rs. Sr., 6'3", 203) Ayo Dosunmu (Jr., 6'5, 200)
WING Mark Smith (Sr., 6'5", 220) Adam Miller (Fr., 6'3, 180)
CF Kobe Brown (So., 6'7", 240) Damontie Williams (Sr., 6'3, 215)
POST Jeremiah Tilmon (Sr., 6'10", 260) Kofi Cockburn (So., 7'0, 285)

Note: These starting lineups are projected.

If all things were equal here, I’d absolutely love this group from Illinois. Since it’s Illinois, ya know, I’m supposed to hate them and whatnot, but... (this is a really fun team). I can still be critical, and think they may not quite be as tough as they need to be (ex: getting ground into dust by Baylor), and they are inconsistent shooting the ball at times. But man, what a fun group of players.

You’d think everything starts with Ayo Dosunmu, but really, Illinois kind of revolves around Kofi Cockburn. The monstrous mountain of a sophomore center has seen his overall efficiency drop a bit due to a little more usage and a little higher turnover rate, but since this season is still young, we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. The reality is Cockburn is really good around the basket, runs the floor hard, and gives this team an anchor in the middle of the lineup. Having someone as big, strong, and hard working as Cockburn in the paint allows Brad Underwood to go smaller more often when he runs out Adam Miller, Dosunmu, and Trent Frazier.

Though Underwood traditionally plays nine guys, he reliably counts on just seven. After the starters, Underwood turns to stalwart Giorgi Bezhanishvili for minutes at the five, and super-frosh Andre Curbelo at the guard spot.

When Missouri has the ball...

Mizzou 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 108.3 (36) 16.3 (110) 56.1 (31) 17.8 (113) 32.8 (57) 33.9 (130) 32.6 (162) 60.9 (13) 73.1 (94) 9.4 (176) 7.6 (84)
Illinois 90.1 (31) 16.1 (94) 44.3 (59) 14.6 (283) 17.8 (10) 25.4 (54) 29.4 (89) 44.4 (64) 53.8 (11) 6.5 (253) 6.5 (253)
NCAA Basketball: Oral Roberts at Missouri Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

What to Watch | Converting around the rim

Mizzou has exceeded around the rim so far this year. They’re 60% from 2FG this year, and even better around the rim, over 62% (they don’t take a whole lot of shots from the mid range). Illinois has good size at the center position, but they play pretty small most of the time. They have good length on the perimeter, but the Tigers have the ability to attack the rim, and if they get there they’ll have Kofi Cockburn to get around. He’s not the most athletic or the biggest shot blocker, but he is big. So Mizzou’s high-eFG% offense goes against a defense who doesn’t force turnovers or foul much, but they tend to hold teams to more jump shots away from the rim rather than layups and dunks.

When Illinois has the ball...

Mizzou Defense vs Illinois Offense

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 91.5 (44) 17.7 (236) 42.0 (32) 15.3 (272) 28.2 (154) 29.8 (109) 26.4 (41) 43.9 (57) 75.3 (253) 5.8 (238) 8.4 (177)
Illinois 111.1 (12) 16.2 (97) 61.3 (8) 21.3 (210) 42.0 (4) 37.1 (99) 47.3 (4) 56.9 (43) 69.6 (154) 6.2 (67) 11.6 (256)
NCAA Basketball: Ohio at Illinois Patrick Gorski-USA TODAY Sports

What to Watch | the Glass & the 3-point line

So far this season Illinois has been elite at shooting the 3 ball and getting offensive rebounds. In their one loss this season, against number 2 ranked Baylor, they weren’t great at either. Against Duke, Illinois shot the lights out from 3 (63% of just 11 attempts), but got very few offensive rebounds (16%). So some of these numbers have been skewed by a short season and the Illini’s playing some rummies at the start of the season. But they are a more capable 3-point shooting team than a year ago, and even last year they murdered teams on the glass. Missouri held their own against them last year, and they’ll need to do it again. And limit the 3-point shooting.


KenPom predicts...

Illinois 72, Missouri 71 | We all know Mizzou is on a two game winning streak in the annual Braggin’ Rights contest. Mizzou’s two game winning streak preceded a five game win streak by Illinois, which preceded a four game winning streak by Missouri, which preceded a nine game win streak by Illinois, followed by a three game winning streak by Missouri. In fact, the last time a team didn’t have a winning streak of at least three games was when the series was first played in St. Louis, in 1981.

For Missouri, this game isn’t necessary for them to make the tournament. Most of their work will need to be done in conference play. But if you send your resume to the NCAA Selection committee with a Quad 1 win against Oregon, then a Quad 1 win against Illinois, both in non-conference, you’re at a good starting spot.

Illinois is the better team, with a more talented roster, and a regular home court advantage is thrown out the window with a pandemic. It’s hard to get a full read on this game. But one thing we’ll know for sure is it’ll tell us a lot about how the rest of the season can go for both teams.