Beat writer Marcus Jackson breaks down Saturday's Braggin' Rights game.
Illinois vs. No. 23 Missouri, 4:30 p.m. Saturday
P Name Yr. Ht. PPG
G Tracy Abrams Jr. 6-2 11.5
G Rayvonte Rice Jr. 6-4 17.7
G Joseph Bertrand Sr. 6-6 10.7
F Jon Ekey Sr. 6-7 9.2
C Nnanna Egwu Jr. 6-11 8.3
FYI: Rice has led the Illini in scoring each of the last six games, averaging 19.5 points during that stretch while shooting 50.5 percent from the floor.
OFF THE BENCH
G Jaylon Tate Fr. 6-3 2.7
G Kendrick Nunn Fr. 6-3 2.8
G/F Malcolm Hill Fr. 6-6 3.8
P Name Yr. Ht. PPG
G Jordan Clarkson Jr. 6-5 19.4
G Jabari Brown Jr. 6-5 19.0
G Earnest Ross Sr. 6-5 14.2
F Ryan Rosburg So. 6-10 5.6
F Johnathan Williams III Fr. 6-9 6.5
FYI: Tigers’ top four scorers are all transfers. Clarkson previously starred at Tulsa, Brown spent time at Oregon and Ross started out at SEC rival Auburn.
OFF THE BENCH
G Wes Clark Fr. 6-0 6.0
F Tony Criswell Sr. 6-9 6.4
F Keanu Post Jr. 6-11 1.0
Site: Scottrade Center (22,153), St. Louis
TV: ESPN2 — Dave O’Brien (play-by-play) and Jimmy Dykes (analyst) have the call.
Radio: Brian Barnhart (play-by-play) and former Illini Jerry Hester (expert analysis) have the call on the Illini Sports Network on WDWS 1400-AM, WDAN 1490-AM, WHMS 97.5-FM, WDNL 102.1-FM and WPXN 104.9-FM.
Series: Illinois leads 27-16. Last meeting: No. 12 Missouri 82, No. 10 Illinois 73, Dec. 22, 2012 (St. Louis).
FYI: Since Illinois’ win in the series during the 2008-09 season, the Tigers have won four straight, and a win for Missouri on Saturday would mark its longest win streak in the series.
Marcus Jackson’s storylines
In Illinois’ two losses this season, it has allowed sizable second-half leads to disappear. At Georgia Tech, the Illini led by 12 with six minutes to play. Against No. 15 Oregon in Portland, they led by nine with 13 minutes to go. But the Illini couldn’t hang on in either contest. While those struggles have been well-documented, coach John Groce has used the fact that in games decided by seven points or less, his team also has three wins. Four of the last seven Braggin’ Rights games have been decided by 10 points or less, so chances are the Illini will get another opportunity to come through in a late-game pressure situation. “We’re OK. Stay poised, keep learning, execute the details of the offense a little bit better,” Groce said. So much emphasis has been placed on the offensive possessions in those situations, but it’s the other end that concerns Groce. “Our defense has not been good enough late in the game. We’ve not gotten enough stops. I just don’t like the points per possession we’re giving up in the last eight to nine minutes relative to the first 30-32 minutes. We’ve got to get stops and rebounds, and the rest will take care of itself.”
Nnanna Egwu sat a good chunk of the first half in the loss to Oregon with two fouls, and the big man went back to the bench 15 seconds into the second half after picking up his third foul. Staying on the court has been an issue, but he has gotten better, believe it or not. When Groce arrived at Illinois, he noticed that Egwu led the nation in fouls per minutes played during his freshman season. “He’s improved a great deal in that area. We need him to take another jump. I think he’s already taken one, and we need him to continue making progress in that area,” Groce said. Egwu’s troubles of late have come on the offensive end, where he’s been whistled for setting illegal screens. He and backup center Maverick Morgan have been victimized by that, and it’s a combination of them being overzealous and the perimeter players not waiting for the screen. “Obviously, we’re addressing it,” Groce said. “I can’t begin to tell you the number of clips that we’ve shown and the number of discussions that we’ve had. At some point they’ve got to learn. It’s part of the growth process, and we’ve got to get better at it.”
There isn’t going to be a whole lot of mystery when it comes to what kind of game you’ll see played Saturday at Scottrade Center. Both teams like to push the pace, they’re good in transition and the defenses will feature mainly man-to-man with some zone mixed in. All of that will come into play, and the tempo will be dictated by whichever team can maintain control of the game. But Groce said a matchup like this comes down to a few simple things. “At the end of the day, a game like this comes down to toughness, physically and mentally, for the majority or the duration of the 40 minutes and players making plays,” he said. For Illinois, that means Rayvonte Rice and Tracy Abrams creating offense for themselves and others. Someone else will have to emerge on the offensive end on a team that insists on doing things by committee. A game after playing an Oregon team that was scoring better than 91 points per game, the Illini defense will be challenged by an explosive Missouri squad. “(Clarkson, Brown and Ross) are as talented a trio as we’ll play this year. Our guys are looking forward to the challenge,” Groce said.
Prediction: Missouri 69, Illinois 68
If Groce had his way, every game would be approached the same way, and for everything he can control, the Illinois coach does a fine job of getting that message through to his players. This game is different, and for as much as he prepped himself for the intense atmosphere last season in his first experience in a Braggin’ Rights game, Groce was somewhat taken aback at the electricity this game generates. “There was more emotion in the game than I thought,” he said. He’s watched the film from last year’s game more than once, and Groce noticed that his players were affected by the environment at times, getting out of character. Maintaining poise is a message that will be repeated until the ball is tipped Saturday. “I thought we got caught up in that, which can be a good thing if you balance it appropriately,” he said. “You’ve got to be able to trust the system, be poised and don’t let anything or anyone steal your mind. At the same time, you love that competitiveness that’s a part of the game, you love that edge to it, you love that emotion and you’ve got to channel that in a positive way.” Only three players on each side have experienced a Braggin’ Rights game. Whichever group handles itself with the most poise will have the edge. (N-G prediction record: 10-1)