For Illini, Missouri more on the line than Braggin Rights
CHAMPAIGN — There is a little something extra in this year's Braggin' Rights game between Missouri and Illinois.
For the first time in a decade, both teams are ranked in the top 15 and it's a big early-season test for a couple of teams still trying to figure out who they are.
No. 10 Illinois (12-0) has surprised pretty much everyone under first-year coach John Groce, bringing an undefeated record into today's game in St. Louis. They certainly surprised a couple of teams in Gonzaga and Butler to help build their resume.
Missouri, two spots back at No. 12, is playing with a largely rebuilt roster and getting ready for its first run through the SEC. Only two of coach Frank Haith's players have ever played in a Braggin' Rights game, but the Tigers (9-1) are off to a strong start.
Missouri has won three in a row against their rival and for Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and Tyler Griffey, the three seniors who are the heart of the Illini lineup, this is their last shot at beating the Tigers unless there's a postseason meeting.
"You try to prepare for every game the same, you know," Paul said. "But no matter what anyone says, it's a lot different. It's an incredible atmosphere and it's a blessing to play in this every year."
Groce said that since virtually the moment he left Ohio for the Illinois job back in March he's heard about how big a deal the game is — the loud, sellout crowd, divided right down the middle between fans in orange and blue and those in gold and black, national TV, the hype and buzz of a game played over the holidays just before the teams head off to their conference schedules.
Groce knows the opening few minutes of the game will be all energy and crowd noise and hustle. But after that?
"Frank will coach his team and I'll coach mine and we'll both try to execute," said Groce, who is worried about Missouri's size and rebounding.
Missouri is No. 1 in the country in rebounding at 46.1 a game, and averages 13.3 more a game than the teams they've played.
Alex Oriakhi, a 6-9, 255-pound forward, leads the team with 8.6 boards a game. But the Tigers' starting lineup also includes 6-8, 227-pound Laurence Bowers (6.4 rpg) and 6-11, 230-pound Stefan Jankovic (2.1).
Outside of 6-11 center Nnanna Egwu and 6-9 forward Griffey — known more for his shooting than inside play — the Illini don't have players who, on paper, match up. Most of Illinois' 36.6 rebounds a game come from their guards. Paul (5.1 rpg), Richardson (4.6) and point guard Tracy Abrams (3.5) lead the team.
"The biggest thing is the rebounding," Groce said, "and obviously those (Missouri) guys can post the ball. We've got to block out well and we've got to be willing to hit people when the shot goes up, and we've got to snatch our fair share."
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