Ending a three-game skid against Missouri in the annual Busch Braggin' Rights game won't be an easy assignment for Illinois.
That's the opinion of first-year Illini coach John Groce, whose surprising team has vaulted to a 12-0 start and a No. 10 ranking in The Associated Press poll.
"You look at their size," Groce said of the Tigers, who are 8-1 and ranked 12th. "I think that's the thing that concerns you the most.
"You look at that rebound margin (13.3), which is third in the country. Their depth, now with adding (Oregon transfer) Jabari Brown this week. They've got 10 guys that played the other night in the game --double-digit minutes. They're really talented."
Tipoff is 5 p.m. Saturday at Scottrade Center in St. Louis. It's the teams' 32nd meeting in the Braggin' Rights series, with Illinois leading 20-11. Missouri won last year 78-74, following wins of 75-64 in 2010 and 81-68 in 2009.
Groce clearly is concerned with the big bodies of Missouri. The Tigers grab just over 46 rebounds per game, led by 6-foot-9 senior Alex Oriakhi (8.6) and 6-8 senior Laurence Bowers (6.4). Five different players have led Missouri in rebounding, and Oriakhi has four games with 10 or more rebounds.
"The biggest thing is the rebounding," Groce said. "That's what I'm most concerned about when it comes to their size. Those guys can post the ball. We've got to do a great job of doing what we do and we've got to block out well. We've got to snatch our fair share (of rebounds). I think that's a big key to the game."
Bowers, who didn't play in the game last year, leads Missouri in scoring (16.3 points per game). Junior point guard Phil Pressey averages 12.3 points and 5.8 assists. Brown had 12 points in his first game, a 102-51 shellacking of South Carolina State on Monday.
The 5-11 Pressey is the only Missouri player to participate in the Braggin' Rights game last season, and Groce said he is what makes the Tigers roar.
"It starts with Pressey," Groce said. "Pressey's tendencies, his vision, remind me a lot of a kid I coached at Ohio, (D.J.) Cooper, who could put balls on time, on target. You watch him on film and you're like, 'How did he see that?' He's got great vision. I've got a lot of respect for him as a player."
Under Groce, the guard-oriented Illini have made steady improvement. They won the Maui Invitational by defeating Butler --which has since beaten top-ranked Indiana --and they throttled Gonzaga on the Bulldogs' home floor.
"We've had some great wins so far. They have as well," Groce said. "You take a look at the teams and you see players making plays. (Missouri coach Frank Haith) has got some guys out there that can do that; we have some guys out there that can do that. In many ways, it will come down to that, as simple as that sounds."
Senior Brandon Paul is enjoying an All-American season for the Illini. He has reached double figures in all 12 games and is averaging a team-high 18.8 points.
Senior guards D.J. Richardson and sophomore guard Tracy Abrams are averaging 11.5 points apiece. Senior forward Tyler Griffey, a graduate of Lafayette High in Wildwood, Mo., is averaging 8.9 points and is seeking his first productive game against Missouri.
Paul leads Illinois with 33 3-pointers, while Richardson has 30. The Illini have made twice as many 3-pointers as Missouri (120-60), but Groce also has emphasized the importance of his perimeter players getting to the rim.
The Tigers, despite playing three fewer games than Illinois, have attempted five more free throws (220-215).
While Illinois has eight players averaging 10 or more minutes a game, Missouri has nine, and some games has played virtually its entire roster. In Monday's demolition of South Carolina State, 10 Tigers played at least 14 minutes each and 13 saw at least some action.
"It is a little different for me playing that many guys," he said. "We do have guys that can play and can contribute. It allows us to play fast on offense and do some things defensively when you have that kind of depth. You can wear opponents down, so that is something we have to look at."
Braggin' Rights experience favors the Illini, even if Illinois' seniors never have defeated Missouri. Groce isn't sure how much that's worth.
"One of the things we have is experience in terms of playing in a rivalry game," he said. "What does that get you after a few minutes and you've adjusted to the excitement level, the atmosphere and the game? I don't know. A lot of it comes down to execution."
Groce has only heard about the excitement level at the game.
"The atmosphere, everybody has told me, is going to be electric," he said. "I'm looking forward to that. But after about four or five minutes, Frank's going to coach his team, I'm going to coach my team. They're going to try to execute, we're going to try to execute.
"What makes this (game) unique is the fact that it is split right down the middle. Both teams are supported. Fans of both Missouri and Illinois are there, right down the middle, half and half, sold-out. I think it makes it very unique and a really special event."
Contact reporter David Wilhelm at email@example.com or 239-2665.