Missouri, Illinois Put Struggles Aside for Right to Brag

Ryan FallerAnalyst IDecember 22, 2009

As far as the cities of St. Louis, Columbia, and Champaign are concerned, a portion of the excitement surrounding the holiday season has nothing to do with wrapping presents, spreading tidings of joy, or loving fellow man.

Typically, altruism and modesty are thrown out the window—and for good reason.

Since its first edition in 1980, the annual Braggin' Rights game between Missouri and Illinois has evolved into one of the more anticipated rivalry games of the college basketball season.

Equally passionate fanbases from contiguous states are involved. National television crews are often present to broadcast the action. The two teams often take the court residing on level playing fields.

The game's late-December slot has long been the perfect platform on which to stage an entertaining beginning to the holiday festivities of not only the host city and schools involved, but the immediate region as well.

As its name implies, to the winner of the Braggin' Rights game goes a year's worth of trash-talking spoils. The only problem has been that, traditionally, those spoils have been horded by one half of the rivalry.

With the exception of the 1981 and 1983 seasons, when each side captured a win (the game was not played in 1982), neither team has won the Braggin' Rights game on fewer than two consecutive occasions, including Illinois' current streak of nine straight victories dating back to 2000.

Before the Illini's run, Missouri won seven of the nine meetings between 1991-99. Overall, Illinois holds a commanding 20-8 lead in the series, including eight wins in a row from 1983-90.

OK, so maybe that playing field isn't so level. But the periods of sustained dominance that have characterized this rivalry don't diminish its intrigue.

When the Braggin' Rights game commences at St. Louis' Scottrade Center at 8:35 p.m. CT on Wednesday, it will be a matchup of two teams that appear to be eerily similar, if only for the mere fact each is currently treading on unsure footing.

Or at least that's the case according to MU head coach Mike Anderson, who is winless in three tries against Illinois.

“To me, we’ll find out a little bit about our basketball team,” Anderson said after the Tigers' 88-70 home win over Arkansas-Pine Bluff on Saturday. “I’m biased. It’s in St. Louis, Missouri, so to me that’s home, but it’s a neutral setting, and it’s against an Illinois team that’s probably searching for a win just like we’re searching for a win, to find out the identity of our basketball team.”

What we do know about Missouri and Illinois is that neither team is ranked, perhaps serving as a reminder that each has largely failed to assert its potential during the non-conference portion of the schedule.

Wednesday will mark just the fourth time since 1996 that both Missouri and Illinois enter the Braggin' Rights game ranked outside of the top 25.

With a modest combined record of 15-6,  Missouri (7-3) and Illinois (8-3) haven't exactly set the college basketball world on fire during what is relatively perceived as a warmup period prior to conference play—and the truth is plain to see.

While both have wiped out inferior competition, the Tigers and the Illini have struggled against teams of either equal or slightly below-average caliber.

Missouri lost to a talented but very beatable Richmond squad and then inexplicably fell victim to the undermanned Oral Roberts Golden Eagles on the road, effectively sandwiching a 37-point blowout of Pac-10 opponent Oregon.

Illinois lost back-to-back games to Utah and Bradley, two teams with a combined 10-11 record. After recovering by winning four straight, including a furious second-half comeback on the road against the nationally ranked Clemson Tigers, the Illini lost this past weekend on the road against a mediocre Georgia team.

The result for each team has been a subsequent dip in the index used as one of NCAA basketball's main tools of evaluation.

Per the latest rankings at CollegeRPI.com, Illinois and Missouri sit at Nos. 116 and 174, respectively. The Tigers' RPI is the second-lowest in the Big 12, behind only Colorado (252). Only Michigan, Penn State, and Indiana are ranked lower than Illinois in the Big Ten in terms of RPI.

The sorry state of each team's strength of schedule—one of the main components of the RPI formula—gives even more pause to Missouri and Illinois' early-season schizophrenia.

Illinois is at No. 186, while Missouri ranks 307th out of 347 schools. Furthermore, both teams have combined to register only two wins over top 25 opponents, with both of those coming from Illinois (Vanderbilt, Clemson).

For the most part, however, these struggles have been confined to the road. Together, Missouri and Illinois enter Wednesday's game a perfect 14-0 on their home courts. In true road games, that mark slouches to 1-3.

In games played at a neutral site, Missouri is 1-1 while Illinois is 0-2.

A win in this year's Braggin' Rights game would presumably do little to enhance either team's index rating. Nor would it likely cure any road woes. This game certainly won't pave the way for the victor anymore than it will mean the beginning of the end for the loser. 

A rivalry this competitive and spirited—eight of the past 12 meetings have been decided by 10 points or less—doesn't necessarily boil down to number-crunching or any specific season-long scenarios.

It's more immediate than that.

The Tigers want to halt a nine-year drought. The Illini want to extend their dominant reign to the decade mark. 

Conference play is upon each team, which means the meat of the schedule is right around the corner. That's when we'll ultimately find out what sort of teams Missouri and Illinois are.

But for now, the right to brag is more important.

You can find this article and more at my page at Examiner.com .

Photo credit: L.G. Patterson/Associated Press

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