ST. LOUIS — Another wild, fast-paced confrontation between Illinois and No. 23 Missouri could be on tap.
The teams will meet in the 33rd annual Braggin' Rights game at 4:30 p.m. Saturday at sold-out Scottrade Center. Missouri (10-0) has won the last four against the Illini (9-2) but trails 20-12 since the series moved to St. Louis.
Second-year Illinois coach John Groce thought he was prepared for the emotions of the game last year, but acknowledged that he underestimated them in an 82-73 loss.
"There was more emotion to the game than what I thought," Groce said. "I've watched it now several times since we played them last season. I thought we got caught up in that (emotion), which can be a good thing if you balance it appropriately. (But) there were times I thought we took some wild shots and did some things because you get caught up in the emotion of the game.
"You've got to be able to trust your system, be poised and not let anything or anyone steal your mind. You love the edge to it, you love that emotion. We've got to channel that in a positive way."
Maintaining an emotional balance, said Missouri junior Jabari Brown, is critical.
"When they score, it's going to be real loud," he said. "When we score, it's going to be real loud.
"So, you've just got keep your emotions even."
The Illini, who hasn't played since a disheartening 71-64 loss to No. 15 Oregon on Dec. 14, are unranked heading into the Braggin' Rights game for the first time since 2009. Both teams had been ranked in the last four meetings.
Illinois last defeated the Tigers in 2008, a 75-59 decision that extended its winning streak in the series to nine.
Groce said the Illini will have their hands full against Missouri's talented perimeter: 6-foot-5 junior point guard Jordan Clarkson, the 6-5 Brown and 6-5 senior Earnest Ross.
Clarkson averages 19.4 points and 3.9 assists to lead Missouri. Brown averages 19 points and 5.5 rebounds and tops the Tigers with 27 3-pointers. Ross averages 14.2 points and 5.6 rebounds with 17 3-pointers.
"It really starts with their three perimeter players," Groce said. "Those guys are really talented. Those guys are responsible for over 60 percent of their scoring, shots taken, 3s taken, assists, steals and you can keep going right down the line. Those three are as talented a trio on the perimeter as we'll play all year. Our guys are looking forward to that challenge."
Ryan Rosburg, a 6-10 sophomore, and Johnathan Williams III, a 6-9 freshman, complete the Tigers' lineup. Williams averages 8.4 rebounds to lead Missouri.
The Illini, who are 10 deep, rely on 6-4 junior Rayvonte Rice, a transfer from Drake who sat out last season. Rice, a native of Champaign, averages 17.7 points and can score from anywhere on the floor.
Junior point guard Tracy Abrams, 6-6 senior Joseph Bertrand, 6-7 senior Jon Ekey and 6-11 junior Nnanna Egwu are the other starters. Abrams averages 11.5 points and 3.4 assists, Bertrand averages 10.7 points and Ekey averages 9.2 points and leads the Illini in rebounding (6.4) and 3-pointers (27). Ekey is a transfer from Illinois State.
Freshman Malcolm Hill, a Belleville East graduate who was the News-Democrat's Player of the Year the last two seasons, will get his first taste of the Braggin' Rights game.
"Obviously, he has a feel for it," Groce said. "We've talked about it being like a heavyweight boxing match. That's what it is. He knows that. He's been to the game. He was at the game last year. He knows what it's about.
"He's just got to be who he is and not get caught up in all that emotion. It's easier said than done. We'll work with him and continue to talk with him. But ultimately, at the end of the day, he's got to be who he is."
Hill has played in all 11 games and averages 3.8 points. Groce has been using him 12 minutes a game.
"I do think he knows our defensive system, as he should," Groce said. "But he knows it a lot better than when he started and he's probably a little bit more advanced in that than what I would have thought at this juncture, which is a good thing.
"Obviously, he's talented and he's got a lot of skill. We've got to continue to get the most we can out of him. He needs to play more consistently, I think is the biggest thing."
Groce expects the pace to be fast.
"I think both teams are pretty good in transition and will take that, obviously, if it's there," he said. "Both teams have played a lot of man-to-man at this juncture; both teams have used some zone. I think at the end of the day, a game like this comes down to toughness --physically, mentally --for the majority or the duration of the 40 minutes, and then players making plays."
Missouri never has won five in a row against the Illini.
"They're going to hear enough from the guys who have played in it about what they expect," Tigers coach Frank Haith said. "I just think, for us, it's just about sheer preparation."
Contact reporter David Wilhelm at email@example.com or 239-2665.
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