Illinois vs. Missouri
Saturday, 7 pm in St. Louis
TV: ESPN2

The best trophy in college basketball is on the line Saturday, with Illinois looking to beat Mizzou for a fifth consecutive year in the annual Braggin’ Rights game. Each installment is a thriller unto itself, but this year’s meeting packs in a little extra excitement.

Perhaps most obviously, Illinois gets a chance to put one over Jeremiah Tilmon, the young man who had an on-again-off-again relationship with the Illini that rivaled Sam and Diane’s with its dramatic swings. Then you also have Cuonzo Martin, who many (many not named Josh Whitman, that is) thought was destined to fill the seat vacated by John Groce, but who jumped on the chance to lead the Tigers early. Martin replaced the almost totally over-matched Kim Anderson, who put together a 27-68 record at Mizzou, and immediately injected more intrigue into the annual border war.

Of course, one big factor stoking excitement for this year’s Braggin’ Rights was Mizzou freshman Michael Porter Jr., Martin’s biggest flashiest recruit, a sure-thing NBA lottery pick and game-changing playmaker. But Porter was forced to undergo back surgery on October 21, with a subsequent 3- to 4-month layoff from basketball.

Even without Porter, however, the Tigers (10-2) have put together a decent start to this season. Good wins against Iowa State, St. John’s, and UCF have shown how effective Mizzou’s offense can be. Elder statesmen guard Kassius Robertson and forwards Jordan Barnett and Kevin Puryear are scoring in bunches, and have led the Tigers to an adjusted offensive rating of 28th nationally according to KenPom. Tilmon has also pitched in (9.8 points and 5 rebounds per game), but has limited himself by foul trouble (averaging 6.9 fouls per 40 minutes, or 1 every 10 minutes).

Though the Illini (8-5) might look like underdogs, especially after a poor showing against New Mexico State last Saturday, there is one area they could exploit against Mizzou: tempo. The Tigers rank 304th in adjusted tempo, with just 66.9 possessions per 100 minutes, whereas Illinois ranks 37th with 74 possessions per 100 minutes. The teams Missouri has lost to, Utah and West Virginia, average more than 71 possessions per 100 minutes (71.1 and 74.6, respectively), and Stephen F. Austin, Brad Underwood’s old charges, took Mizzou to the brink on Tuesday with their pace (72.4 poss/100 poss), losing by just one, 82-81.

The Braggin’ Rights game is always fun to watch, and if Underwood can disrupt Missouri’s rhythm with fast-paced offense, the Illini could find themselves holding the trophy yet again.

Photo by Mike Pauza.