The 2011 Braggin' Rights game will feature two teams going in opposite directions.
While the No. 9 Missouri Tigers have continued their winning ways headed into Thursday's game, the Illinois Fighting Illini have stumbled in the last week, losing to UNLV and escaping with a close win against Cornell. This has left many wondering if the Illini will be able to hang with the experienced Tigers.
Illinois is 11-1 and ranked No. 25 in the latest AP poll, but when you look at its resume and statistics thus far, it's easy to see that they aren't as good as their record shows. Ken Pomeroy has the Illini ranked only 55th as of Dec. 21, mainly because of an offense that ranks 164th in the nation (69 ppg) and a fair amount of luck to go along with an easy schedule.
Missouri's second ranked offense (87.9 ppg) will give the Illini's 25th ranked defense the toughest test they have faced all year, so if they want to have a chance, the adage of a good defense will beat a good offense must ring true.
That solid defense of Illinois is led by sophomore center Meyers Leonard. Standing at 7-1, Leonard has played about 28 minutes per game this year, blocking 2.4 shots per game while putting up a consistent line of 13 points and eight rebounds. His presence down low will be a big factor in how successful Missouri's offense will be.
Three-point shots haven't been falling for the Tigers at as high of a rate as they were earlier in the season, so the guards have become more aggressive, driving the lane and getting layups and drawing fouls more frequently. This style of play probably wont work as well going against Leonard, so it will be interesting to see how Frank Haith's crew adjusts. The Tigers have adapted to different defensive looks well this year, so expect a good gameplan on Thursday.
The best course of action for the Illini to combat the multi-talented Missouri offense will be to slow the pace down. While these aren't the "Fastest 40 Minutes" Tigers of last year, Mizzou still plays at a high pace while Illinois likes to slow it down.
For comparisons sake, Illinois is averaging only 65.3 possessions per game (264rd in the nation), which is almost five possessions less per game than Missouri's 70.2 (ranked 47th).
If this game turns into a slow, defensive battle like Illinois' 48-43 win over St. Bonaventure or 64-60 win over Cornell, expect them to hang with the Tigers for all 40 minutes.
If Missouri runs the Illini around like they did in their 104-67 win over Kennesaw St. or 92-53 win over California, expect this to be an easy win for the Tigers.
Players to watch:
Missouri - Marcus Denmon
After getting off to one of the hottest starts in all of college basketball, Denmon's shooting stroke has cooled in the last couple of games, highlighted by his 7-point effort against William and Mary on Sunday. The senior guard is still shooting over 50 percent from the field, but it will be interesting to see if he can bounce back from a tough shooting day in his last game. I'm betting he will.
Illinois - Brandon Paul
Paul is shooting only 35 percent from the floor this season, but the talented junior guard doesn't have to force himself into being the focal point of the offense. Paul should look to be a distributer in this game, unlike last year when he was 3-of-11 from the floor and one of the main reasons his team lost. A calm, cool and collected Brandon Paul would be a step toward an Illini upset of the Tigers.