The Fighting Illini are riding a wave of momentum at the moment and have generated new excitement within the program.
At 12-0 and in possession of the No. 10 ranking in the nation, Illinois has every reason to feel good about itself as it heads into its showdown with the Tigers.
But it’s worth keeping in mind that the Fighting Illini seemed to have a lot of potential last season as well heading into this game only to lose 78-74.
Illinois was never the same after the loss. It won only six more games and stumbled to a 17-15 record.
Missouri is 9-1 and ranked No. 12 in the country. It has won the last three meetings in this heated rivalry and would love nothing more than to give Illinois a reason to question itself going forward.
I don”t want to say that this is a make-or-break game for Illinois, that a loss would suddenly doom its hopes for a successful season, but the Fighting Illini need this win.
They need to prove that their undefeated start is legit rather than a flash in the pan. They need to show that when it comes to rising to the occasion in big-time moments, that they can get the job done.
To be fair, Illinois did win the Maui Invitational and it came through with an impressive road over Gonzaga earlier this season. Both are huge accomplishments.
But the reality is that beating the Tigers would mean so much more simply because of what this game means to both programs.
Illinois has a golden opportunity in front of it on Saturday. It has a chance to silence those who are still skeptical and set itself up for a shot to contend for a Big Ten title and NCAA tournament berth.
The question is, can the Fighting Illini seize the moment? We’ll know more after Saturday night.
Brian Lester is a featured Big Ten columnist and college basketball writer for Rant Sports. He is a member of the United States Basketball Writers Association as well.
Follow him on Twitter @BLester1993 or send him an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.