It's Braggin' Rights weekend! The Illinois Fighting Illini will be traveling in St. Louis on Saturday afternoon to take on the Missouri Tigers in the 34th edition of the annual matchup. The 8-3 Illini are coming off a nice tune-up victory over the Hampton, while Mizzou (5-5) last played a week ago and lost to Xavier. Let's give a warm welcome to Sam Snelling of Rock M Nation as he joins us to preview the game.
1. It's been a rough start for this Mizzou team as they're currently sitting at 5-5. They've played a relatively tough OOC schedule, but the Tigers have dropped games to both UMKC and Purdue. What were the expectations for the first season of the Kim Anderson era?
Expectations varied upon who you talked to. I consider myself a bit of a realist, and even I got to drinking the kool-aid a bit going into the season. Kim Anderson hit every note after being hired, landed Montaque Gill-Caesar, and many Mizzou fans threw the reality of the roster out the window and thought this team was going to be better than many expected. But reality set in pretty quick with the opening loss to a pretty bad UMKC team. The reality is that this is a team that lost so much from a pretty average team a season ago. The leading returning scorer averaged less than 6 points a game. That's not a recipe for success unless you're bringing in a bunch of 5-star freshmen. And while the freshmen class looks like a good one, they aren't THAT good. At least not yet. So I think realistically at this point we'd all be pretty happy with a .500 season as long as there's progress in the way the team looks over the course of the season.
2. There seems to be a new cast of characters for Missouri this year. Who are the team's major contributors?
Missouri's best player is Johnathan Williams III. He was a top 40-50 player a season ago, and started every game as a freshmen. He's been averaging almost 17 points per game in the last 4 games, his rebounding totals have gone up as well. I'd expect him to be closer to 16 ppg by the end of the season. The next guy is Montaque Gill-Caesar, who was a top 40 wing who reclassified to 2014 to play this year. That was a huge signing at the end of the summer because it gave Missouri some much needed talent on the wing. The problem is that he's a freshman, so while he's still technically leading the team in scoring, he's a little erratic and is prone to scoring 5 points as much as he's likely to go for 15.
3. Frontcourt play has been perhaps the biggest area of concern for the Illini. How are the Tigers in this area? Do you think they'll be able to exploit this weakness?
It depends on which part of the front court. Now that Jakeenan Gant is eligible and playing, Missouri can go smaller and be more athletic. Our two centers, Keanau Post and Ryan Rosburg have both been pretty terrible this season. Rosburg has been serviceable in the past but not much more. The good thing about the matchups with the Illini is that their smaller more athletic lineup allows Missouri to almost play their best players. With Williams and Gant, Missouri has a smaller, weaker front court, but far more athletic and a threat to score. With Williams, I think this matchup clearly favors Missouri, but it's just too much of a question what they'll get out of the other guys.
4. What's your opinion of Illinois so far? Which player(s) on our side do you view as the biggest threat?
As I told you on the podcast, I love Malcolm Hill. I wanted Hill to be a Tiger and secretly hoped that we could flip him but it wasn't meant to be. Obviously Rayvonte Rice is the guy who can take over a game, but I just like Hill as a tougher matchup for Missouri. He's what we kind of hope that Jakeenan Gant is going to become, and Gant is a little taller, as that sort of swing forward. I've gotten to watch Illinois a few times and I've liked certain things. I'm still not sure I know exactly what it is that Groce is trying to accomplish with his roster, which I still think he's trying to build up and balance out. I think with the talent on the roster Illinois can be a tournament team, but I think they demonstrated against Villanova that while they can challenge the top teams, they're still aways away from being real challenger for any league titles.
5. The Braggin' Rights game is College Basketball's most underrated rivalry. However in the 34-year history of the game, there have only been 9 matchups in which both teams were ranked. Given the trajectory of both programs, do you think this could ever be a consistently "ranked matchup" in the future?
You know, this is a really great question. Both programs have had their times in the limelight. The problem, with both programs, is that success has been fleeting. We all tend to remember a "good old days" of a time period when either team was highly successful. Even back then, that success wasn't necessarily sustained in the way you see Kentucky or Duke have year after year. There's a really long road to climb up for both in order for them to each find that level of sustained success. It's my opinion that Illinois is possibly the easier job with a talent factory like Chicago just sitting there. That said, The SEC isn't a great league, and there is room for a team to step up behind Kentucky and Florida. So, I've danced around your question. I think I don't know the answer. Possibly yes, but it's tough to sustain that level of success. I'd like to see where these two teams are in two years.
6. What's your prediction for Saturday's game?
Missouri isn't very good rightness. They're still talented, but haven't put together a full game. They also haven't played a single power conference team to within 10 points. I like that streak to continue against Illinois actually. I'd expect it to be a 12-16 point game. If it's less than 10, I think that's a good sign for the growth of the team. If it's less even 8-10 points, I think it's likely that somebody got really hot for Missouri. I doubt that happens, so I'm gonna go with what I expect which is something like 74-60.
Thank you again to Sam for taking the time to answer our questions! You can follow him on Twitter at @SamSnellingRMN. Make sure to check out Rock M Nation for more coverage as we approach Saturday's game.