The Fighting Illini enter tonight's Bragging Rights game with a very young, but incredibly talented basketball team. Illinois is 11-1 to start the season, but tonight they will face their biggest test of the year against senior-laden and the undefeated No. 8 Missouri Tigers.
Many experts have suggested that the Illini's record does not really reflect the team they actually are. Illinois has struggled in many of their games that should have been "easy" wins for them. Much of the struggling has come from a lack of experience on the team. The Illinois roster features 10 underclassmen—many of whom are getting significant playing time this season.
Having a young team is not at all a bad thing in college basketball: It is a great thing. The fact remains, though, that when you have a young team it also means that they lack experience in big games.
Tonight, this team will continue to build their experience in a massive game for the Illinois program against the Tigers.
If this young Illinois team—whose talent level is questioned by many—could pull off a huge upset tonight against Mizzou, they would be in the ranks of some of the most elite teams in the country. I have no doubt that these players at Illinois will do great things throughout their careers, but if they could start sooner rather than later it would be huge for their legacy.
Although the team is made up of mostly underclassmen, some of the key players this season are juniors and seniors. The Illini are led by star junior guards D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul.
Richardson and Paul have provided the veteran leadership for this team, but they still have a lot to contribute to Illinois basketball as well. Senior transfer Sam Maniscalco has also been a huge part of this team, and his veteran leadership is allowing some of the freshman guards to make a slower and smoother transfer into head coach Bruce Weber's system.
The inside game for the Illini is led by junior Tyler Griffey and sophomore Meyers Leonard. Both players are very big and talented inside, and with freshman Nnanna Egwu coming off the bench the Illini are slowly forming one of the most talented front courts in the country.
Slowly forming is not what Illinois wants, though.
The faster these young players can adjust to the Illinois system and the quicker this team can become dominant, the better. Illinois has the chance to speed up the growing process tonight.
The Missouri Tigers are in a very different spot than Illinois.
Missouri is the team Illinois wants to become.
The Missouri roster features eight seniors—the polar opposite of Illinois. The Tigers are led by outstanding senior guards Marcus Denmon and Kim English. Brothers Phil and Matt Pressey also provide some of the offensive spark, and senior forward Ricardo Ratliffe has been a dominant presence inside.
New head coach Frank Haith has received criticism from fans after he was hired by Missouri this summer, but Haith has quickly silenced his critics. The Tigers are now playing some of their best basketball in recent memory. The defense is quick and dominant and the offense never stops scoring.
There are few teams in the country who can line up with the Tigers and hang with them for 40 minutes.
Most importantly though, Mizzou is having fun with the game—How could they not be? They run circles around teams and score at will. They are a nearly impossible combination to beat.
Throughout their first 11 games, Mizzou is 11-0 and has faced very little competition, blowing out their opponents with an average margin of victory of 28 points. If the Tigers can crush the Illini tonight, I would expect there to be very few teams on their schedule who could legitimately compete for 40 minutes with them.
The seniors at Missouri have already gone through the growing process that Illinois is going through now, and they believe that their time for greatness is now.
Mizzou's growing process was an ideal situation. This year's senior class at Mizzou went to the Elite Eight as freshman, and have gone back to the NCAA tournament the past two seasons. Now with all their experience built up, Mizzou is ready to make a strong National Championship run this year.
What does each team need to do to win tonight?
Obviously, things are going to be very difficult for Illinois tonight. The Illini need to try to play pressure-free basketball. Sure, this is their rival and they want to win extremely badly, but even with a loss Illinois would still be 11-2 before entering Big Ten conference play.
Illini players should not put any extra pressure on themselves tonight, because Mizzou is going to apply a lot of pressure to begin with.
When trying to upset a team, fundamentals are key.
Missouri has the highest shooting percentage in the country, and they are going to get their shots in tonight. Illinois needs to lengthen the possessions throughout this game to limit the Tigers' shots. They also need to limit the amount of open shots Mizzou takes by getting a hand in every shooter's face.
It seems obvious, but if you watch Mizzou play they get lots of open shots that they knock down consistently.
The biggest key for Illinois tonight, though, is to exploit the inside.
Meyers Leonard is 7'1", while the biggest Mizzou player is Steve Moore at 6'9": That is a four-inch difference. Leonard has to dominate in the post along with 6'11" Egwu and 6'8" Griffey. If the Illini can dominate the glass and force Mizzou to take outside shots, the shooting percentage of the Tigers will drastically decrease. This will also allow Illinois to bring their low shooting percentage up by giving them easier inside shots.
The Illini guards also need to drive to the basket early. Do not settle for outside shots. Let the guards drive to the basket and then start trying to get the open looks from three-point range.
For Mizzou, they just need to do what they have been doing. The Tigers have some of the best guards in the country, and they need to continue to play great defense and get out and run. When the Tigers can get on the fast break, it allows them to get to the basket more and get easier shots.
Getting on the fast break also allows them to score before the big men of Illinois can get down the court to play defense.
The biggest key for Mizzou is getting Meyers Leonard off the court. If the Tigers get to the basket early and put Leonard in foul trouble, it will force Illinois to rely more on their outside shooting. Without Leonard, Illinois has no chance to upset the Tigers.
This is a huge game for both teams. Mizzou looks to stay undefeated, while Illinois looks to enter conference play with a huge victory against a premier team.
That isn't all that's on the line, though.
Bragging rights are always up for grabs when these two arch rivals square off in St. Louis.