CHAMPAIGN — As Illinois and Cornell walked through the postgame handshake line, a fan behind press row shouted his opinion of Monday's game.
"You got lucky, Illinois!"
The fan was wearing orange. And after the Ivy League visitors led for most of the second half at the Assembly Hall, he was probably right. Illinois eventually won, 64-60.
On Thursday against No. 9 Missouri — and that ranking is probably too low — the Illini are going to need all the luck in the St. Louis casinos.
The Tigers (11-0) are playing fast and confident and as well as any team in the country. Illinois (11-1) had to overcome its largest deficit this season — 10 points — to slip past a Cornell (4-5) squad picked to finish sixth in the Ivy League.
"No one's been able to stop them," Bruce Weber said of Missouri. "They score a lot of points. They shoot the three. They run."
Weber added, "Those dudes play hard."
One other thing: the current Tigers sincerely enjoy beating the Illini. They own a two-game winning streak in the Braggin' Rights series and their postgame locker room sounded like an eggnog party after both double-digit wins.
"If we come out like we did today, the game's going to be over before we know it," said UI junior Brandon Paul, who made a pair of clutch jumpers to beat Cornell.
"We know they're good and it's going to be a tough game," said Meyers Leonard, who had his third double-double (19 points, career-high 16 rebounds).
And there is the Illini's singular advantage, at least in terms of personnel: the 7-foot-1 Leonard. With Missouri's four-guard look, there isn't the imposing figure in the paint. But like the brilliant Illini of 2004-05, "No one's been able to take advantage of them with (their) lack of size," Weber said.
Leonard acknowledged he would play a significant role if the Illini were to swing the upset. He sustained a strained back against Cornell but said afterward, "I'll fight through it."
"I do like the matchup (with Missouri), definitely. I feel like I can take over the game," Leonard said. "I did a good job of that in the first half (Monday)."
"He's a big advantage for us," Weber said. "But we've got to get him touches."
Yes, the Tigers have played an easy schedule, but they have ripped through it like it was a wet paper bag. Mizzou's won eight of its past nine games by at least 25 points. Every win has come by at least 10 points. Illinois will be the second ranked team to play Missouri. The Tigers crushed the other one (then-No. 18 California) by 39.
Meanwhile, Illinois is trying to reinvent its identity. Two months ago it was considered a deep team that might be able to wear down opponents. Now, the bench has managed three points in the past two games and has been outscored in six straight.
Missouri's pressure defense demands you have fresh legs. But the Illini bench production has regressed so sharply, it's almost as if the coaches are nervous to make substitutions.
"If we play this way against Missouri it could be a long night," Weber said.