Well, the time has finally come upon us for one of the biggest and most circled games of the year for the Fighting Illini.
Illinois will square off in St. Louis at the Enterprise Center against a hated rival, the Missouri Tigers. There is no love lost between these two squads and a couple players on Missouri’s roster, and let’s just say they have some Illini ties.
Illinois will look to avenge its loss from last season that ended a five-game winning streak in the series. The Illini are riding high after a win against top-five Michigan and then following it up with a beat down of Old Dominion.
Illinois is 8-3 on the season and 1-1 in conference play. Missouri enters the contest with a 6-4 record and have not started the conference season. The Illini hold a 25-13 advantage in the all-time series.
Players to Watch
As much as it pains me to say this, two of the top three Tigers the Illini need to watch out for have made commitments to the Illinois program... with one player suiting up in orange and blue for an entire season.
Mark Smith enters the game leading the Tigers in scoring and rebounding. He is a big guard at 6’5 and has a strong frame weighing in at 220 pounds. So far this year he is averaging 12.9 PPG and 5.0 RPG. The key for the Illini with Smith is needing to make him into a facilitator. Smith is only averaging 0.6 assists per game on the year and when the ball is in his hands he mostly looks to score. Smith is not very quick either but is a very good shooter. He is shooting the ball at 40.9% from behind the arc this season.
I would not be surprised to see Coach Underwood throw multiple defenders at him including Andres Feliz and Ayo Dosunmu. I am sure Trent Frazier would also like a shot at guarding Smith for obvious reasons.
Next up is the point guard Dru Smith, the facilitator of this squad — and stopping him will be vital for the Illini. He leads the Tigers in assists at 4.2 per game.
Jeremiah Tilmon will also be a player to look out for. I would expect Tilmon to guard Kofi Cockburn as much as possible. With that being said, staying on the floor has been an issue for Tilmon and I can see Kofi getting him into foul trouble early.
Side note: Kofi Cockburn has just as many double doubles in his career as Tilmon...
Keys to the Game
I believe the Illini will come out of the gates strong. With last years loss they want to make sure Mark Smith takes his first Braggin’ Rights game defeat. Illinois also needs to understand if it’s not broke don’t fix it.
Playing inside out will be a recipe for success the rest of the season. If Illinois throws it into Cockburn early and often I do not see Tilmon playing many minutes in this contest. Giorgi will also have a big advantage down low that the Illini will need to exploit. I also need to mention, as I do every time with this Illini squad, the importance of taking care of the ball. Illinois will have many more possessions than opponents every single matchup if they do this, just based on their extraordinary ability to grab offensive rebounds.
Ayo Dosunmu will be able to beat just about every Tiger off the dribble and if he grabs a defensive rebound he will be able to get fast-break buckets.
I believe that this Illini squad has more talent, confidence and edge than this Tiger team. This should bode well, but in this rivalry game anything can happen.
With that being said I expect Illinois to come out hot and firing. It’s about time for Trent Frazier to have one of those games too... and what better time than against his old backcourt mate and fellow 2017 recruit Mark Smith? Frazier goes for 20+.
Final score prediction: Illinois 81 Missouri 66.