New Illinois basketball coach John Groce has heard all about the annual Busch Braggin' Rights game against Missouri. Now he's ready to live the experience.
The surging Illini (12-0), ranked 10th in The Associated Press poll, will square off against the 12th-ranked Tigers (8-1) at 5 p.m. Saturday at Scottrade Center in St. Louis.
"We're excited about the game on Saturday. I've heard about it from the moment that I got the job back in late March and early April," Groce said Thursday afternoon after his club wrapped up a spirited practice.
"It's a rivalry game. Our guys are excited to play. You can tell there's a little bit more pep in their step in practice. We've been really good the last two days. Guys are pretty locked in right now."
The game will be televised on ESPN2 and broadcast on KFNS-AM 590. The Illini have dropped three in a row to Missouri, but lead the all-time series 20-11.
As prepared and focused as the Illini figure to be, Groce fully expects the Tigers to match them in both departments.
"I've known Frank (Haith) for a long time," Groce said of the second-year Missouri coach. "I know his kids will be ready to play. He did a terrific job last year and has done a good job molding a lot of new faces. As I watch them, there's really only one guy in (Phil) Pressey who played in last year's Braggin' Rights game.
"(Laurence) Bowers did two years ago, but the rest of those guys are new guys. I've enjoyed watching them. They've very good; they've very talented. It's going to take a heck of an effort on our part to compete on Saturday. ... A lot of it comes down to execution. A lot of it comes down to players making plays."
Illinois seniors Brandon Paul, D.J. Richardson and Tyler Griffey, a St. Louis product, never have beaten Missouri.
"I've heard them talking about it. They're aware of that," Groce said. "But the only thing I would say, regardless of what their record is previously (against Missouri), I've got news for them: It ain't changing. It really has no effect on Saturday night's game. This is a separate game than the other three that they played."
The 6-foot-9 Griffey was recruited by Missouri but chose the Illini. In three games against the Tigers, Griffey has six points seven rebounds. He had two points and three rebounds in the game last year, won by Missouri 78-74.
Griffey, a Lafayette High School graduate, is averaging 8.9 points and 3.5 rebounds this season and has 18 3-pointers.
"He's excited to go back home. What kid wouldn't be?" Groce said, adding that Griffey on Friday will be the final Illini player to complete final exams before the team leaves for St. Louis.
Broadcaster Dick Vitale recently anointed the Illini as the surprise team in the nation. They were the great unknown before the season, with a coaching change from Bruce Weber to Groce and the departure of 7-foot-1 center Meyers Leonard to the NBA.
But Illinois began to gain momentum by winning the Maui Invitational, which included a title-game victory over Butler, and defeating Gonzaga on its home floor in Spokane, Wash.
The Illini have had fast starts before. They took an 11-1 record into the game against Missouri last year, for example, but finished 17-15. They were 10-2 heading into the game against the Tigers two years ago, only to finish 20-14.
Will history repeat itself? Groce isn't sure, but he understands how some people might still be doubting the Illini.
"People like good stories," he said. "They like to watch giants crash and David rise. It depends on what side of the fence you're on.
"We're just worried about getting better. We want to play well on Saturday; we want to execute our game plan. I don't get caught up in all that stuff because I can't control it. I think as soon as you start worrying about things out of your control, you drive yourself crazy in this business. So I just refuse to do it."
Contact reporter David Wilhelm at firstname.lastname@example.org or 239-2665.