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Mizzou Hoops Preview: Illinois

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Missouri faces a tall task in trying to bring home its fourth straight Braggin’ Rights victory.

NCAA Basketball: St. Francis (PA) at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

Braggin’ Rights is a funny thing. I say funny in the sense that, come game time, it’s decidedly unfunny. In fact, it’s quite serious.

Much of the past decade of Mizzou vs. Illinois games has seen the Tigers at a laughable disadvantage. Even during the strange years of John Groce, the Illini always operated with a talent gap that seemed to wide. This is despite the fact that none of the Illini’s five straight wins from 2014 though 2018 were double-digit victories. The Braggin’ Rights rivalry has long felt like streaky contest — five straight for Mizzou, then four for the Illini, then three for Mizzou — but Missouri’s dreadful stretch in the mid 2010’s felt like a missed opportunity to step on Champaign’s collective throat and own the rivalry for the modern era.

Because of that stretch, I began to train myself to not care as much about Braggin’ Rights or, at the very least, view it with a bit more levity. I don’t necessarily hate the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, just their basketball team, and it feels mentally healthier to let go of the contest relatively quickly. Enjoy the victory for the evening (or sulk quickly) then move on. After all, we won’t see each other for another year.

But that is, of course, antithetical to the very idea of Braggin’ Rights. The name itself implies a sense of haughtiness. Feeling low about a conference loss? At the very least, you can poke an Illini fan on Twitter and remind them of Braggin’ Rights. It may be mean, but you “earned” it by picking the right school! The allure of those sweet, sweet Rights are too much for me. Every year, without fail, I end up way too wrapped up in the contest and am utterly devastated when Missouri loses or treated to a Class-A drug-like euphoria when they win.

The latter has been the status quo for each of the past three years. Even as Missouri struggles to break out of mediocrity, I find some sort of singular pleasure in beating the Fighting Illini. Even as they (obviously) eclipse Missouri on a national scale and continue to draw elite talent to the program, I can always point to the scoreboard and say, “Braggin’ Rights, baby.”

Tonight’s return to St. Louis for the annual rivalry leaves me with some mixed emotions. Of course, I’m pointlessly trying to distance my emotional self from the outcome of the game. KenPom tells me that this Tiger team will lose to the Illini 9 out of every 10 times. The chances for another euphoria aren’t looking great, folks.

BUT...

Imagine if Missouri wins this game tonight. Holy mother of god, how wonderful would that be? A win won’t mean that the Tigers are suddenly rocketing toward a second consecutive NCAA bid. It doesn’t mean that Cuonzo Martin needs to scrap his work on upgrading a flawed roster. It just means another year of those sweet, sweet Braggin’ Rights. Even in the midst of mediocrity, Braggin’ Rights bring warmth to a person’s heart.

So please, Mizzou, please do me this small kindness of making all Illini fans sad for the fourth straight year. I want to hear their taunts in March, when they’re playing for glory, and point back to December 22 on the calendar. I want to know that somewhere deep inside, the knowledge that they don’t have Braggin’ Rights is eating away at their happiness.


The Scout

The Starters

Position Missouri (6-5) Illinois (8-3)
Position Missouri (6-5) Illinois (8-3)
PG Kobe Brown (Jr., 6'8", 250) Trent Frazier (Sr., 6'2", 175)
CG Amari Davis (Jr., 6'2", 175) Alfonso Plummer (Sr., 6'1", 180)
WING DaJuan Gordon (Jr., 6'3", 190) Da'Monte Williams (Sr., 6'3, 215)
PF Javon Pickett (Sr., 6'5", 215) Jacob Grandison (Sr., 6'6", 210)
POST Ronnie DeGray (So., 6'6", 225) Kofi Cockburn (Jr., 7'0", 285)

Note: These starting lineups are projected.

Players to Watch

NCAA Basketball: Rutgers at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

The Illini are rolling with a very familiar crew this year, so many of y’all will be aware of the talent they bring to the floor. Kofi Cockburn is beyond introduction at this point as likely the best back-to-the-basket big men in the country. Trent Frazier is entering his 20th year with the Fighting Illini and enjoying his best statistical season as a graduate student: he’s shooting almost 39 percent from deep while playing strong, turnover-inducing defense. Utah transfer Alfonso Plummer has adapted well to Brad Underwood’s system, having one of the best shooting seasons in the country, sporting a 69.6 true shooting percentage with high averages from everywhere on the floor. Senior Da’Monte Williams is giving the Illini strong minutes as a secondary guard who doesn’t command a lot of possessions, but doesn’t hurt on the defensive end either.

Role Players

NCAA Basketball: Arizona at Illinois Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports

It feels unfair to stick players like Coleman Hawkins and Jacob Grandison in this section, but it speaks to the quality of Underwood’s roster and how he’s able to lean more heavily on just a few players. Hawkins was recently moved from the starting lineup, but he’s having a starter-worthy season. He’s shooting well from close range and respectable from long-distance while playing strong power forward defense and distributing well (19.2 assist rate) from a position of height — albeit the Illini will give up some additional turnovers when the ball is in his hand. Grandison is the last player on the team that gets above a 50 percent minutes share, and he’s shooting even better than his teammate Plummer. The 6’6” senior boasts the sixth best offensive rating in the country, shooting 50 percent (?!?!?!) from three and 59 percent from two. He’s not just a shooter either, as he’s able to grab offensive rebounds and isn’t much of a turnover threat.

From there, it’s a smorgasbord of talented players whom Underwood can dispense for whatever need he fancies. Benjamin Bosmans-Verdonk (funny, his name is my name too) is maybe the best rebounder on the team outside of Cockburn boasting a 24.3 percent offensive rebounding percentage. He’s also a wickedly good passer for his size, but he fouls too much to get regular run. Florida transfer Omar Payne has also struggled with fouls (and turnovers) but he rebounds well and gives the Illini extra rim protection off the bench. Two youngsters, RJ Melendez and Luke Goode, are scoring threats off the pine, boasting good jump shots and size that bodes well for the future.

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 100.4 (185) 16.9 (123) 45 (301) 21.5 (289) 35.2 (25) 32.9 (109) 24.1 (355) 49.4 (180) 71.6 (154) 7.5 (78) 9.3 (164)
Illinois 91.9 (38) 16.3 (31) 44.2 (27) 16.2 (304) 26.5 (113) 26.1 (104) 32.9 (171) 42 (11) 70.6 (178) 7.7 (216) 8.1 (273)
NCAA Basketball: Missouri at Kansas Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

What to Watch | Can rivalry magic solve the jump shooting?

It’s no secret that Missouri’s jump shooting is woefully bad (five-worst-in-the-country bad!), but the Tigers have still managed to scrape some wins without the aid of an outside threat. Not so with Illinois, who boast one of the country’s best two-point defenses thanks in large part to Kofi Cockburn. If the Tigers want to walk away with an upset win, they’ll at least need one player to have an average night from behind the arc. That’s not totally unheard of in a game like Braggin’ Rights, but it’s also not a guarantee. If Missouri can’t find a way to generate some points outside the paint, buckle in for a long night.

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 114 (11) 18 (252) 55.6 (20) 21.8 (302) 42.1 (2) 34 (82) 39 (16) 53.2 (80) 72.1 (134) 9.7 (216) 10.9 (287)
Missouri 98.5 (121) 18.2 (323) 52.7 (288) 20.4 (115) 25.4 (79) 32.4 (236) 37.7 (317) 50 (192) 63.8 (22) 12.3 (68) 10.3 (130)
Syndication: HawkCentral Joseph Cress/Iowa City Press-Citizen / USA TODAY NETWORK

What to Watch | How do you solve a problem like Kofi?

OK, so let’s talk about Kofi Cockburn again. The Jamaican star has been a thorn in Missouri’s side in each of the past two Braggin’ Rights games, but luckily the Tigers had one Jeremiah Tilmon to help contend with Cockburn’s dominance down low. Now, however, Cuonzo Martin will have to reckon with the seven-footer without the use of Tilmon... or even a fully functioning big man. Jordan Wilmore has some size on Cockburn, but not nearly the athleticism. Someone like Kobe Brown might have the speed to keep up with him but will be ceding quite a bit of size.

The truth of the matter is that Martin will have to find some creative way of dealing with one of the best big men in the country. As usual, Cockburn is one of the best rebounders in the game (maybe the single best?) and draws fouls at an elite rate while shooting 62.5 percent from the field. Brad Underwood will turn to him early and often unless Missouri has an answer. While getting beat by Trent Frazier again would be no fun, it seems like a preferable gamble to watching Kofi Cockburn violently bulldoze you for 40 minutes.


KenPom predicts...

Illinois 76, Missouri 62 | Unlike the Border War revival, this game will at least happen on something of neutral ground, though it’d be naive to think Missouri supporters will outnumber that of the Illini on Wednesday night. If there’s hope to be found, it’s that Braggin’ Rights games rarely get out of hand and Missouri has found a direction in playing the youngsters. But Cuonzo Martin will need those guys to grow up fast — and for a veteran or two to play above their head — if he hopes to grab a signature win and fourth straight Braggin’ Rights title.

Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See draftkings.com/sportsbook for details.