The two teams first squared off back in 1932.
Since, World War II has ended, we put a man on the Moon and one boy has yodeled in a Walmart.
The Fighting Illini, led by head coach Craig Ruby, walked away from Brewer Fieldhouse’s — and the 2,000 occupants — victorious. The game was a low-scoring affair, decades before the introduction of the three-point line and the inclusion of black athletes in intercollegiate athletics.
Fast forward to the most recent matchup between the teams.
Illinois, headed by Brad Underwood who was born over 30 years after the first meeting between the teams, left St. Louis’ Scottrade Center with the win. Both squads now don uniforms made by Nike, a multibillion dollar corporation that wasn’t even founded until the 60s. The players are blessed with the finest facilities and resources at the schools’ disposals, receive first-class treatment from top-tier professionals in their field, and many are considered local celebrities.
We’ve been blessed with triple overtime games to step-back buzzer beaters and everything in between. But none of that is what has revitalized the rivalry in recent years.
The introduction of promising, up-and-coming coaches Brad Underwood and Cuonzo Martin both came to his school with one mission: restore his program, each with a rich basketball history, back to glory. Since the inauguration of the Anhueser-Busch sponsored Braggin’ Rights game back in 1980, the schools have meet up all but one year since. There have been 48 total meetings, 36 of which has seen at least one school in the AP Top 25 rankings.
Before the new coaches were brought in, the event had seen two of the lowest turnouts in its history, bringing in just 14,000 fans in 2015 and 12,000 in 2016.
Now, the hirings of Martin and Underwood did a lot to shift the culture of the teams and the matchup, but it was the 2017 recruiting class where things really got juicy.
The John Groce Era
Underwood’s predecessor, John Groce, was struggling in recent years, striking out with recruits left and right, and his team hadn’t made an NCAA Tournament since his first season.
But that was all supposed to change with 2017 class when he had picked up commitments from Jeremiah Tilmon, a five-star product out of East St. Louis; Da’Monte Williams, an Illinois legend recruit; Trent Frazier, a shifty lead guard from Florida; and Javon Pickett, a lengthy wing from the downstate area. He had put himself in great position with the state’s best player and breakout star, Mark Smith, too. Groce was fighting off guys like Tom Izzo, Bill Self, and Mike Krzyzewski for the cherry on top of his coveted recruiting class.
But John Groce never made it to the offseason. The Illini dropped a must-win game in the final seconds at Rutgers to spoil their NCAA hopes, and that was the nail in Groce’s coffin. Athletic Director Josh Whitman pulled the trigger and let Groce go, with the possibility of some of his recruits leaving with him. And just that happened.
Both Tilmon and Pickett asked for releases from their National Letters of Intent, putting them back out on the market, and searching for a place they could call “home” in the fall.
The Brad and Cuonzo Era
Shortly after, Brad Underwood was named as the man for the job at Illinois, and Cuonzo Martin moved back to the midwest to take over a sputtering Missouri Tigers basketball program. Underwood and signee Trent Frazier battled to keep Tilmon and Pickett with the Illini, but it was not to be.
Tilmon and Pickett signed with the Martin and the Tigers, along with one of the best players in the nation, Michael Porter Jr.; his brother, Jontay; and top-100 guard Blake Harris. Missouri now had a promising, young coach and a top-five recruiting class to go with it.
On the other hand, Underwood was now left with just two signees in his 2017 class, multiple roster holes to fill, and just a couple months to do it. He dove into the Mark Smith recruitment immediately, convincing the Edwardsville native why he should choose his home state and how he was going to be a part of the culture change in Champaign.
Underwood’s eagerness to seal his first recruit as an Illini paid off. Smith signed with the Illini, and Illinois brought in forwards Greg Eboigbodin and Matic Vesel and graduate transfer Mark Alstork as late pickups to the 2017 class.
In the span of months, the rivalry was renewed. The Illini fanbase was infuriated with the Tigers. Martin had stumbled in, stole two of its recruits and added three of the best players in the nation.
Neither team could wait to settle the matter come Dec. 23.
The 2017 Matchup
The Illini entered the game still adjusting to a new style. Underwood’s tea showed it was going to play aggressive defense and run the floor, but the offense was still suspect. Missouri lost Porter Jr. early on in the first game to a back injury. The team was starting to find a groove after dropping a disappointing early season loss at Utah.
Frazier and Leron Black used a strong first half to give the Illini a commanding 20-point lead entering halftime. The Tigers began to chip away at the lead after the intermission, but it proved too much to overcome. Illinois left winners of five straight matchups and gave Underwood a 1-0 leg up on Martin.
The 2018 offseason has been no exception to the drama.
Freshman Mark Smith asked for his release from the team and, within the past week, announced his transfer to? You guessed it. The University of Missouri, giving fans a reason to watch for at least another four years.
Underwood and Martin will continue to fight for the best players in the area. See Courtney Ramey or E.J. Liddell’s recruitment. And the two will continue to fight and battle for the Braggin’ Rights title come each and every December.
It’s a rivalry that has flown under the radar in recent years, but the drama and mutual hatred between the two just might put it back on the map.