ST. LOUIS — What did you think? That Illinois would go undefeated?
Of course not. There were too many narrow scrapes during the 12-0 run against mostly midmajors. So Saturday’s 82-73 loss to Missouri did nothing to change clear-thinking opinions about John Groce’s 2012-13 Illini basketball team?
This isn’t a Top 10 team. Maybe not Top 20. It’ll be a battle to land in the Big Ten’s first division, which is a reasonable and attainable goal that would bring an NCAA invitation.
Missouri, on the other hand, is striving to bring together mature, rugged talent that is just growing into its well-tattooed skin. If you were picking a lineup from the two squads, you might begin with Brandon Paul, and the next four would be Mizzou’s Phil Pressey, Laurence Bowers, Alex Oriakhi and Jabari Brown.
If you’re looking for UI positives — in a game where Tracy Abrams and Sam McLaurin were ineffective, and D.J. Richardson now has missed 15 of his last 18 treys — how about Nnanna Egwu? Even as Mizzou punked the outmanned losers by 23 rebounds, pulling down an incredible 58 — 93 missed field goals allowed for that — Egwu was active and speared six offensive rebounds. He is showing signs. He was extremely active.
But beware. Michigan State’s Derrick Nix and Adreian Payne combined for 38 points and 18 rebounds in Saturday’s 67-56 defeat of Texas. Minnesota has a formidable 1-2 backboard duo in Trevor Mbakwe and Rodney Williams. The Big Ten is loaded. Indiana has Cody Zeller, and Iowa’s big youths are advancing. But Oriakhi did things Saturday that only big-time centers do, and now that Bowers is healthy and Brown has gained eligibility, no Big Ten team has more up-front depth than Missouri.
This annual Braggin’ Rights affair is starting to look like its defunct football nephew. The Tigers have won four straight at the Scottrade Center and appear in great shape for the immediate future ... if Pressey returns.
At this point, the 5-11 junior stacks up alongside Michigan’s Trey Burke as late first-round picks but no higher because, in NBA eyes, they’re on the small side.
At the college level, Pressey may be the premier playmaker in the game. Illinois had no answer for him. As he did a year ago, the SEC preseason Player of the Year chopped Illinois’ defense to ribbons, controlling Saturday’s game even as he suffered inexplicably bad 3-for-19 shooting.
Accuracy is not his forte, his career percentage checking out at barely .400, but he rules in ways that have Tiger fans imagining Final Four potential.
Final Four? That’s heady speculation for a program that went 30-5 last season and was promptly bumped by Norfolk State ... a program that grew into a major force during the Norm Stewart regime but has never reached the Final Four.
— The all-orange apparel didn’t work. The Illini came out dressed in orange, right down to their socks.
— A recount of the UI’s missed shots, other than layups, during the midgame stretch of 17-plus minutes was 25. Other than eight layups and tip-ins, the Illini missed 25 consecutive attempts, including 11 treys. How did they hang in and go ahead 62-57? We’re still trying to figure that out.
— The SEC ranks No. 8 in conference RPI, just above the Missouri Valley, so Mizzou should roll in league play with all eyes on the Feb. 23 date at Kentucky. Other than the Tigers, the only AP-ranked SEC team is Florida, which lost its second game to Bruce Weber’s 9-2 Kansas State team 67-61 Saturday. Ole Miss, 9-2, has played an awful schedule and fell to Middle Tennessee State and Indiana State. And LSU, 7-2, has lost two of the last three to Boise State and Marquette.
— Auburn (5-6), the UI foe Saturday in Chicago (attendance is now at 13,000), drew 5,156 paid in Saturday’s 74-67 home loss to Winthrop. Earlier losses to Rhode Island and DePaul were at home. The UI is working to get a natural rival in Chicago, but Notre Dame and Marquette refuse.
— Illinois has one scholarship available for the next semester and has offered it to guard Ty Johnson, who is leaving Villanova. South Carolina may be the stiffest competition for him. It is expected that between 50 and 75 players will transfer from the 347 collegiate teams this month, and between 400 and 500 in the course of the year.
Loren Tate writes for The News-Gazette. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.