Pardon fourth-year Illinois coach John Groce if he gets the sense that his team’s annual Busch Braggin’ Rights game against Missouri will again go down to the wire.
After all, the Illini have won 65-64 and 62-59 in Groce’s last two games against the Tigers, with both ultimately being decided in the waning moments.
The Illini won in 2013 on two late free throws by Tracy Abrams. Last year, Rayvonte Rice’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer gave Illinois its three-point victory.
“Records don’t matter, rankings don’t matter,” said Groce, whose team is 7-5 and on a four-game winning streak entering the 6 p.m. game Wednesday at Scottrade Center in St. Louis. “The thing you learn from being in it for three years ... is it (usually) goes into the last couple of minutes to determine who’s going to win the game.
“We expect no different. That’s just kind of the way it is. You accept that when you sign up. That’s what makes it fun. That’s what people like about the game. It’s a highly competitive atmosphere, environment and game. It’s a lot of fun to be a part of; it’s a privilege to be a part of it.”
The Tigers (5-5), who have lost their last two games, won four in a row against Illinois from 2009-12 after the Illini won nine straight from 2000-08. The only time a team has not won at least two straight in the series was in 1980-81. Illinois won in 1980, followed by a Missouri victory in 1981. There was no game in 1982.
Illinois leads the all-time series 22-12. The series has featured three overtime games (1981, 1995, 2000), a three-overtime game (1993) and five games decided by one point.
Groce said his team will be ready for the challenge.
“We had a chance to take the day off Sunday, which I thought was huge for our team,” he said. “We came back Monday and Tuesday and practiced well. The guys are obviously excited to have a chance to play in one of college basketball’s greatest rivalries. We’re starting to improve and really grow in the offensive end. We’ve got to get better defensively.”
The Illini’s offense revolves around 6-foot-6 junior Malcolm Hill, a Belleville East graduate, and 6-3 junior Kendrick Nunn, who is healthy again after missing the first five games.
Hill averages 18.5 points to lead the Illini, a tick ahead of Nunn’s average of 18.4, and is coming off a career-high 34 points in a 91-79 triumph over South Dakota on Saturday in Champaign.
Groce has been proud of Hill, who has emerged as one of the top players in the Big Ten and the country. Hill also averages 5.8 rebounds and is shooting 46 percent from the field.
“He’s improved a lot in numerous areas,” Groce said. “First of all, as a person. He’s getting more and more mature, which is good. I think he understands the importance of discipline a little bit more. He’s really grown a lot there. His body’s changed a lot. You can tell that from watching the previous Braggin’ Rights games, which I have done this week. I think he values all the little things a lot more than he did when he first got here.
“And obviously, the basketball part, as a player, I think he’s really grown and developed. He’s become a well-rounded player, a versatile player, a guy who can do a lot of different things at both ends of the floor. His greatest strength is certainly his versatility. He picks up things quickly. We play him now, at least one possession or more, at all five positions. There’s very few guys in college basketball who can do that.”
Belleville East graduate Malcolm Hill, a junior for the Illini, is averaging 18.5 points and is coming off a 34-point outburst Saturday
Groce also said Hill doesn’t shy away from big moments, and envisions Hill’s future going beyond Illinois and into the professional ranks.
“I appreciate the fact that he lets me coach him,” Groce said. “I’m hard on him because I know what he’s capable of. I still think we’ve yet to see his best, so we’re going to keep pushing him.”
Nunn, said Groce, “is the same way,” an offensively blessed talent who takes some of the pressure off Hill’s ever-broadening houlders. Nunn is shooting 47 percent from the floor and ranks second on the team in 3-pointers with 22, behind only 6-3 freshman Jalen Lands-Coleman, who has 27 3s and is averaging 8.6 points.
“Kendrick’s a guy who’s unflappable,” Groce said. “He’s never afraid; he’s fearless. I love that about him. And we’ve got some other guys, younger guys, who are emerging as well.”
Redshirt freshman Michael Finke, who is 6-10, and 6-3 junior Jaylon Tate complete the Illini’s starting lineup, with help from 6-5 freshman Aaron Jordan, 6-10 junior Maverick Morgan, 6-4 redshirt junior Alex Austin and 6-7 freshman D.J. Williams.
“Those guys have all gotten better, and I’m really proud of the mindset they’ve had,” Groce said. “It’s the next-man-up philosophy we’ve talked about. They’ve really embraced that. I see us as a team that’s getting better.”
Leron Black, a 6-7 sophomore, is sidelined indefiniely with a knee injury. Tracy Abrams, a 6-2 senior, is in the midst of his second straight missed season because of a knee injury. Mike Thorne Jr., a 6-11, 270-pounder, is likely out for the season with a torn meniscus.
Missouri is led by 6-7 freshman Kevin Puryear, averaging 12.1 points. Terrence Phillips, a 5-11 freshman, averages 9.4 points, while 6-5 sophomore Namon Wright averages 8.8 points and 5.8 rebounds and 6-0 junior Wes Clark averages 7.7 points. Another freshman, 6-3 K.J. Walton, averages six points. Jakeenan Gant, a 6-8 sophomore, has a team-high 10 blocks.
Illinois leads Missouri 22-12 in the Busch Braggin’ Rights series
The Tigers have more size in 6-10 senior Ryan Rosburg. Two guards, freshman Cullen VanLeer and sophomore Tremaine Isabell, are weapons off the bench for Missouri.
Opponents are outrebounding the Tigers by an average margin of nearly four a game.
Groce isn’t certain how long the Busch Braggin’ Rights series will continue, but said he hopes it lasts “for eternity.”
“We enjoy playing the game; we love the game,” he said. “It’s great for college basketball. That’s my take on it, but certainly I’m not the only person involved in those processes. The one in front of us is the most important one, and that’s (Wednesday) night.”