Braggin' Rights is finally upon us, ladies and gents, and once again Missouri enters the game boasting an undefeated record and a national ranking. Though the faces might be relatively new to Illini fans (nobody who logged minutes on the prolific 2011-12 Mizzou team remains on the roster), the formidable guard play persists and thrives in Mason/Dixon land.
Braggin' Rights Preview: Mizzou's Fearsome Guards and Nnanna's Fouling
Breaking down the enemy in St. Louis.
By Thomas Bruch
Missouri head coach Frank Haith has embraced the roster-shaping via transfers strategy more than perhaps anyone in the country, and the stars on this team are of the transfer ilk. Jordan Clarkson originally hails from Tulsa University, Jabari Brown from Oregon and Earnest Ross from Auburn.
Those three guards are going to present the biggest problems for the Illini, so I'll break them down individually before getting to some of the larger aspects of the Missouri team.
Jordan Clarkson is the leading scorer for the Tigers at 19.4 points per game and opening many eyes nationally. Some have even posited he's the best player in the SEC, which is not exactly swinging for the fences (Julius Randle might have something to say about that). What he does have is elite size for a point guard at 6-foot-5 and a smooth, confident dribbler.
This makes him a pick and roll nightmare, and that's how Haith likes to use him. He's converting 50.7 percent of his field goals, surpassing even our own efficiency monster (Rayvonte Rice), and likes to get to the free throw line and hit all of them (87.8 percent on the year). Clarkson doesn't look to shoot the 3-pointer much, mostly because he's too busy getting to the paint at will. You'll be impressed by him.
Jabari Brown, for my money, is the best player on this Mizzou roster. You'll fondly recall his 18 backbreaking points he hung on Illinois at last year's Braggin' Rights when we all were supposed to be worrying about Phil Pressey and Laurence Bowers.
He's even better this season, sporting 48.3 percent field goal percentage. You nod at the number, but there's more. He's shooting 48 percent from the field while over half of his attempts are 3-pointers. He has a higher conversion rate from beyond the arc than Jon Ekey, and he's taken more of him. Also, he plays the entire game (37 minutes per game), so there's no escaping him. It's this guy we should fear.
Then, Earnest Ross--he of mountainous shoulders and terrifying tats. I have no idea if he's ever instigated a fight on the court, but if he does, I'd be running in the opposite direction. He's 6-foot-5 like Clarkson and Brown, but weighs in 30 pounds stronger than Clarkson and 14 pounds more than Brown. He's a load and he likes to launch the 3-pointer. He's only shooting 32 percent from that range this season, but he's been red hot recently against some of Mizzou's best competition, shooting 9-23 the last three games.
With three guards of this caliber, you could guess that almost all of the offense runs through them. Mizzou's pick and roll heavy, which is encouraging for the Illini. Our guys are impressive defending the pick and roll (I think I beam with pride two or three possessions a game at how stifling our pick and roll defense is). The drawback there is that most of that defense is largely contingent on Nnanna Egwu staying out of foul trouble, with our bench bigs being considerably worse at guarding pick and rolls.
As you can imagine from the subpar in-game strategist we know in Haith, Mizzou actually runs a lot of junk offense in which the other players are setting screens for no other purpose than to distract defenders from helping on Clarkson when he inevitably blows past his defender. It's amusing to watch, but surprisingly effective. In fact, creating driving lanes for Brown and Clarkson might be Mizzou's sole offense.
All of this might sound slightly terrifying for our Illini. But take heart. Mizzou is not a particularly good undefeated team. In Pomeroy's rankings, Mizzou (#46) is the lowest-ranked undefeated team remaining outside of Toledo (who, incidentally, have a rip-roaring offense that's fun to watch).
Illinois comes in at #51 on Pomeroy's rankings and boasts a better strength of schedule than the Tigers.
And to the amusement of all Illini fans, Mizzou has a massive turnover problem. When they land in the thick of the defense, they'll throw the ball anywhere and usually to no one in particular. In their last game against Western Michigan, MIzzou had one of the ugliest displays of basketball in the first half, committing heinous turnovers that had me chuckling after many possessions. If our ball-seeking guards can get their hands on the ball on defense, we'll give fits to Mizzou guards.
As with almost any team they'll face this year, Illinois' got a great chance against these guys. Count Nnanna's foul disposition as the biggest key to this game, and a poor shooting night from Jabari Brown might lead to a victory and a return to Braggin' Rights glory.