By the Associated Press
Laurence Bowers (21) grabs the rebound as Flip Pressey (1) looks up-court. Bowers should be a key rebounding presence for Missouri against Illinois.
CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — 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 Saturday’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 Southeastern Conference. 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.
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.
That’s great, he said, and the opening few minutes of the game will be all energy and crowd noise and hustle.
“But after four or five minutes, 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 rebounds a game) 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 rebounds a game), 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.”
Missouri is also deep.
While Illinois has eight players averaging 10 or more minutes a game, Missouri has nine, and some games has played virtually its entire roster. In Monday’s 102-51 demolition of South Carolina State, 10 Tigers played at least 14 minutes each and 13 saw at least some action.
Haith, in his second season at Missouri, said being able to dip that deeply into his bench is a luxury.
“It is a little different for me playing that many guys,” he said. “We do have guys that can play and can contribute. It allows us to play fast on offense and do some things defensively when you have that kind of depth. You can wear opponents down, so that is something we have to look at.”
Haith has built this team in part on transfers like Oriakhi (from Connecticut) and guard Keion Bell (Pepperdine).
Bell said he played rivalry games at Pepperdine, “but it was nothing to this extent. This is a different level of basketball. I’ve heard the guys from previous years talk about the intensity of the game and how big of a game it is, so I’m just looking forward to playing in it this year.”
He’s right, said Paul, preparing to play in his fourth game against Missouri.
“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.”