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No. 13 Illinois wants Braggin’ Rights, not upset, vs. Missouri

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When it comes to the annual Braggin’ Rights Game between Illinois and Missouri in St. Louis, just assume there’ll be an upset.

That’s not good news for No. 13 Illinois (8-2), which enters Friday night’s game against Missouri (7-4) at Enterprise Center as the healthy favorite. But it’s also an old story for Brad Underwood’s Fighting Illini.

Illinois entered the last four Braggin’ Rights games as a favorite only to be taken down by Missouri. Last year’s battle was particularly painful as the Tigers led by as much as 35 and rolled to a 93-71 triumph over the 16th-ranked Illini.

“They were good,” Underwood said. “They got guys (from that team) playing in the NBA. I thought mentally, we were just drained last year. And we were really, really young. All of that was way too much for us last year. Now we’ll see if we can have a little better approach this year.”

That shouldn’t be hard considering Illinois’ approach overall is dramatically different. Freshmen played 82 of Illinois’ 200 minutes in last year’s game and Matthew Mayer was the only senior.

This time around, Underwood likely won’t play either of his freshmen unless there’s foul trouble or a blowout. Instead, he’ll start two grad transfers (Marcus Domask and Quincy Guerrier), one fifth-year senior (All-American candidate Terrence Shannon Jr.), one fourth-year junior (Coleman Hawkins) and sophomore guard Ty Rodgers.

Not only does Illinois boast players with maturity, they’re equal parts athletic and crafty. Similar to Penn State’s squad last year, the Illini are more than willing to let their guards play “booty ball” and power their way to easier shots in the paint.

“We knew Marcus was a good postup player in his previous stop (at Southern Illinois). Ty does it all the time. Terrence is really good at it. Quincy’s gotten really good at it. We kind of started practicing it and said, ‘Hey, there’s a lot of ways to get the ball to the mouth of the rim — and it’s not just through a post entry to Dain (Dainja).’ The reality is you watch Jay Wright’s team (at Villanova) and he won two national championships just posting his guards and spacing. We’re getting there.”

Illinois isn’t the only team that looks different this year. The Tigers have slowed their tempo considerably as they retain just two of the seven players from last year’s rotation in the blowout victory — guards Sean East and Nick Honor.

East has moved into the starting lineup and leads the way with 17.1 points and 3.9 assists per game while shooting 57 percent overall and 61 percent on 3s. Alas, the Tigers enter this game riding a two-game losing streak to No. 2 Kansas and Seton Hall — not that head coach Dennis Gates is too concerned.

“In our previous games, you look at every one of our lessons learned and the L’s we took: Those are all NCAA Tournament teams,” Gates said. “Jackson State is an NCAA Tournament team. Seton Hall is an NCAA Tournament team. Kansas is an NCAA Tournament team. And we all knew how good Memphis was (at the time): NCAA Tournament team.”

–Field Level Media

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