Cuonzo Martin, Jeremiah Tilmon and Mark Smith are no strangers to the annual Braggin’ Rights game between Illinois and the Missouri Tigers.
Martin, the first-year Tigers coach, grew up in East St. Louis and doesn’t need a lecture on the importance of the game to both teams.
“I’m excited,” Martin said. “I’ve watched it for many years. Great energy and passion from both sides. I think it’s one of the best events on that day in the country when you talk about sports – not just college sports.”
East St. Louis High graduate Tilmon, a 6-foot-10 freshman at Missouri who originally signed with Illinois, watched the game every year, as did Edwardsville High graduate Smith, a 6-4 freshman at Illinois.
But seeing the action from a distance and participating in it will be two different animals for Martin, Tilmon and Smith at 7 p.m. Saturday at sold-out Scottrade Center in St. Louis. That’s when the slumping Illini (8-5), who have dropped five of their last seven, will try to take down the Tigers (10-2), on a five-game winning streak, for the fifth consecutive time.
Illinois leads the all-time series in St. Louis 24-12 and is looking for traction under first-year coach Brad Underwood, another newbie to the Braggin’ Rights tradition.
“It’s exciting,” Underwood said. “I coach basketball to be a part of games like this, and I hope we recruit athletes to be a part of games like this. I love rivalry games. They’re very exciting for the fans, and they create the atmosphere. This is one that has tremendous history, tremendous passion. It’s had great coaches, great players and great finishes. This rivalry has had everything you could want — and more.
“I don’t think Illinois fans don’t have a real love affair for Missouri fans. That’s been one of the few things I’ve been told. I don’t come at it from that side. I come at it from the basketball side — more as a bystander.”
Illinois’ last four wins in the series have come down to the final moments. The Illini won 65-64 in 2013, 62-59 in 2014 and 68-63 in 2015 before posting a 75-66 victory last year before the smallest crowd to ever watch the game in St. Louis (12,409).
The fans are back this year, with the game being declared a sellout Wednesday.
“We’ve got a very good Mizzou team. Cuonzo has done a great job,” Underwood said. “The influx of talent there has been very solid. They’re a very good basketball team.”
Tilmon decommitted from the Illini after John Groce was fired and Underwood, the former coach at Oklahoma State, was hired. Tilmon has started all 12 games and is averaging 9.8 points and five rebounds, with 13 blocked shots.
“I wish nothing but the best for Jeremiah,” Underwood said. “That’s a young man trying to reach and achieve his dreams and goals.
“If (his transfer) was unique to us ... It’s not. It’s a common thing that happens all the time in basketball today. Kids feel more comfortable in certain situations when things happen. I don’t know what his process was. We were obviously excited about his possibilities, but he chose to go in a different direction. I haven’t lost sleep over it. I wish him nothing but the best.”
Smith, who was Mr. Basketball in Illinois as a senior and won the News-Democrat’s Large-School Player of the Year award, has started 12 of the Illini’s 13 games. He is averaging 8.6 points but Underwood is high on what he brings to the club.
“Mark’s a guy that has a lot of leadership (qualities),” Underwood said. “It’s not easy because it’s all the time. It’s not when you choose to do it or when you feel right. There’s a certain level of confidence you have to have when you do that. Mark’s going to be that guy.
“Trent (Frazier) has some of that charisma and unbelievable swagger. That becomes pretty contagious. Yet they’re (both) freshmen. This is the first time they’ve gone through it.”
Graduate student Kassius Robertson (14.5 points) and senior Jordan Barnett (14.4) are Missouri’s leading scorers. They’ve combined for 62 of the Tigers’ 118 3-pointers. Junior Kevin Puryear averages 10.6 points.
The Illini’s leading scorer is redshirt junior Leron Black (13.9 points). Junior Aaron Jordan averages 12.1 points and is 30 of 50 from the 3-point line. Redshirt junior Michael Finke averages 11.8 points and 6.1 rebounds.
Illinois’ only victories since Nov. 24 have been against Austin Peay and Longwood.