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Game Preview: Illinois vs Missouri

Game information for Illinois' Bragging Rights battle with Missouri on Saturday afternoon.

Mike Granse-USA TODAY Sports

Illinois ESPN Logo

Saturday, December 20, 2014
1:00 pm CT

RPI Ranking: Illinois: 48 | Missouri: 126
KenPom Ranking: Illinois: 35 | Missouri: 160
Location: Scottrade Center | St. Louis, MO
Television/Stream: ESPN2 | WatchESPN
Odds: Illinois (-9.5), Over/Under: N/A

Mizzou ESPN Logo

The Illinois Fighting Illini are coming off a 73-55 win over the Hampton Pirates last Wednesday night at the State Farm Center, but they will once again hit the road this weekend to take on the Missouri Tigers. This is the annual Bragging Rights Game held in the neutral site location of the Scottrade Center in St. Louis, a game the Illini won last season in a thriller. Tracy Abrams hit two late free throws as John Groce's squad was able to capture the rivalry trophy, 65-64.

But both teams have very different starting lineups from the ones they trotted out for this matchup a year ago, and the changes seem to favor Illinois. Missouri is sitting at 5-5 and only .500 overall this season, and some of their losses have truly been disappointing ones including defeats to UMKC, Purdue, and Xavier. They played in the Maui Invitational back in November and only won one game against Chaminade, finishing in second-to-last place. Other losses include blowouts against Arizona and Oklahoma, though both of those teams figure to be in the top 25 all season long. It's fair to say the Tigers have fallen a long way since their #22 ranking when these teams met last December, but you can never count them out in a rivalry game that means a little bit more for everyone involved.

Probable Starters:

Illinois Fighting Illini:

  1. Ahmad Starks (7.3PPG, 1.9RPG, 3.3APG)
  2. Kendrick Nunn (9.2PPG, 2.6RPG, 1.7APG)
  3. Rayvonte Rice (17.3PPG, 6.5RPG, 1.6APG)
  4. Malcolm Hill (13.0PPG, 5.6RPG, 1.4APG)
  5. Nnanna Egwu (8.0PPG, 5.8RPG, 1.2APG)

Missouri Tigers:

  1. Montaque Gill-Caesar (12.6PPG, 3.8RPG, 0.3APG)
  2. Namon Wright (6.0PPG, 1.9RPG, 0.5APG)
  3. Keith Shamburger (8.6PPG, 2.5RPG, 3.3APG)
  4. Jonathan Williams III (12.2PPG, 6.2RPG, 0.8APG)
  5. Ryan Rosburg (3.4PPG, 4.6RPG, 0.6APG)

Keys to the Game:

1. Regain The Edginess and Energy

I'll admit, the Illini have looked awful sloppy the last few weeks. Even their two wins have been admittedly lackluster (American and Hampton). Lots of turnovers, a dysfunctional offense with little ball movement, and a defense that has given up some bad runs to bad teams. But here's the good news: want a game to get that energy and toughness back on both sides of the ball? This is it. Bragging Rights game, national TV, against bitter rivals, a lot on the line. To put it simply, the Illini need to wake up and play like they were playing in November, and this is an awesome opportunity to do so.

2. Don't Overthink This

That being said, Missouri is not a good team. Just look at the numbers; 126th in RPI, 187th in BPI (ESPN's ranking system), 160th according to Ken Pomeroy's ratings, 250th in the nation in total offensive output, 252nd in rebounding. To put that in perspective, the power-five conference team with the most similar rankings is Rutgers. Quinnipiac, Portland, North Carolina Central, and American University all have better numbers than the Tigers. So if you're the Illini, don't overthink this. Missouri can definitely be beaten, just ask the University of Missouri-Kansas City. They give a lot of points and don't score many themselves. Their best big man, Ryan Rosburg, averages just 4.6 rebounds per game. Play sound defense and take smart shots on offense and you should have no trouble claiming Bragging Rights again this year.

3. Get Out to a Fast Start

Unlike last year's game, when Mizzou started with a 12-3 burst, the Illini need to get off to a good start. That's not something they've been accustomed to doing much this year either, and it would be nice to see. Nothing would be more discouraging to the Tigers than an early punch in the gut. Get out and running and jump out to a double-digit lead, and Missouri may have no chance of ever climbing back into the game. But if you let them believe that they could possibly win the game and it's still a close battle at halftime, anything could happen. Montaque Gill-Caesar is a really talented player and could try to fuel a big upset if the Illini don't assert themselves early on in the game.

Prediction:

This game will be a lot closer, especially in the first half, than I think any Illini fan will be looking for. But ultimately Illinois is the much better team so I think they'll find a way to put some distance between themselves and the Tigers when all is said and done. This game will teeter-totter between a five and ten point lead for the Illini and they'll get to keep the Bragging Rights trophy for another year. Next up is a home matchup against Kennesaw State and then a New Year's Eve game against the Michigan Wolverines. If Illinois can finish the month off strong, they'll be 11-3 heading into January. But for now, I think they'll find a way to get the win against Missouri.

Illinois 82, Missouri 70