His team’s five-game winning streak has Illinois coach John Groce in the holiday spirit.
But Groce knows how fragile the feeling can be as the Illini (9-3) face Missouri (5-5) in the 36th annual Braggin’ Rights game at 6 p.m. Wednesday at Scottrade Center in St. Louis.
Four of the last five games in the series have been decided by five or fewer points. Illinois won the last three games by margins of one, three and five points. The Illini have a 23-12 lead in the series.
“We certainly want to play with great energy and enthusiasm. I know we’ll do that,” Groce said. “But we’ve got to play within the framework of the team and within what we do philosophically — and not be a bunch of wild hares.
“One thing I know about this game is all of them seem to come down to the last four minutes or the last possession. They’ve been highly contested battles, where every possession matters. Both teams have played with tremendous energy, effort and enthusiasm. That’s what I’m expecting. I expect their ‘A’ game and we’ve got to make sure we have ours.”
It will be the final Braggin’ Rights game for Belleville East graduate Malcolm Hill, a 6-foot-6 senior at Illinois who leads the team in scoring at 18.2 points per game.
The metro-east connection at Illinois will continue next year, however, when Belleville East graduate Javon Pickett will join the Illini along with Jeremiah Tilmon of East St. Louis.
We certainly want to play with great energy and enthusiasm. I know we’ll do that. But we’ve got to play within the framework of the team and within what we do philosophically – and not be a bunch of wild hares.
Illinois men’s basketball coach John Groce
Illinois was 3-3 after losing 72-61 to Florida State on Nov. 25. It has recovered with wins over North Carolina State, Virginia Commonwealth, IUPUI, Central Michigan and Brigham Young.
Missouri, meanwhile, is coming off losses to Arizona and Ohio Valley Conference opponent Eastern Illinois, both at Mizzou Arena in Columbia.
Groce expects a challenge, despite the opposite directions the teams are heading.
“(Terrence) Phillips had a great game against us year,” Groce said. “He was terrific (against Xavier). When he gets going in transition and gets in the paint, it gives them another dimension. Both he and (K.J.) Walton do that well.
“(Frankie) Hughes and (Cullen) VanLeer can shoot the ball. (Kevin) Puryear is an underrated player. Watching him in and around the basket, he handles it well. Any time you have a guy posting up and can dribble ... Puryear can get the ball places, he’s great on the glass and he has a face-up game.”
Hughes (12.7 points, 22 3-pointers), a 6-4 freshman, and Puryear (11.9 points, 6.4 rebounds), a 6-7 sophomore, are the Tigers’ statistical leaders. Phillips, a 5-11 sophomore, averages 7.5 points and 4.6 assists.
We have a blend of talents of guys who can shoot it, guys who can put it on the floor, guys who can post it. That’s why our team has a chance to be good offensively. We’ll continue to work on cleaning it up and taking care of the ball.
Hill has plenty of support from his Illini teammates. Leron Black (13.1 points) and Tracy Abrams (12.7 points) are averaging in double figures, while Maverick Morgan, Jalen Coleman-Lands, Michael Finke and Mike Thorne Jr. average between 6.3 and 8.2 points.
“We have a blend of talents of guys who can shoot it, guys who can put it on the floor, guys who can post it,” Groce said. “That’s why our team has a chance to be good offensively. We’ll continue to work on cleaning it up and taking care of the ball.”
Groce said most of his players are trending up, which bodes well for the Illini as they prepare for the rigors of a Big Ten schedule that begins Dec. 27 at Maryland.
“I’ve seen individuals get acclimated,” Groce said. “I’ve seen Thorne’s conditioning and body improve. Black is getting acclimated. Finke and Morgan played well (Saturday). Tracy has done a good job of getting the rust off. We’ve done that through nonconference play, a demanding schedule, a challenging schedule. I think it’s made us better in a lot of areas.”