Talk about a rivalry. Sure it isn’t the Duke Blue Devils and the North Carolina Tar Heels twice a year epic battles or even the Syracuse Orange and Georgetown Hoyas of yesteryear, but as far as neutral site battles go, this is as good as it gets. This year, we’ve even got more reasons to be excited as both the Missouri Tigers and Illinois Fighting Illini are ranked in the top 15.
The Illini have been a major surprise this season as expectations were quite low in Champaign following the hire of John Groce. The 4th, or perhaps even 5th choice, for the top job has really focused this squad which at times last year broke apart. They’ve jettisoned Meyers Leonard to the NBA who, despite the fact he had outstanding tools for a 7 footer, tended to disrupt the flow of the offense. Additionally, they’ve worked in a 2-3 zone which has helped them control more of the flow of the game.
Brandon Paul has really improved his outside shooting which is making him nearly unguardable. Tracy Abrams is being allowed to freelance more under Groce’s system than he did with Weber. And finally, D.J. Richardson isn’t forcing the issue like he did at times last season.
However, the Illini need to find some size inside to compete once conference play starts. Nnanna Egwu has yet to really learn how to play with his frame and if he doesn’t, the battles against some of the Big Ten‘s best could get ugly. Interestingly enough this Missouri team will make a wicked stand in for one of them.
The Tigers are a team in transition. They lost a ton from last year’s squad that got a number two seed in the NCAA Tournament and are playing now without sixth man Michael Dixon who is planning to transfer. You’d think that would mean big problems come SEC play. I’m not so sure. The league is down except for the Florida Gators and the addition of big man Alex Oriakhi cannot be understated. He is relentless around the rim despite the fact he doesn’t have many set plays run for him. I expect that to change somewhat in this one. While the Illini will probably show some zone early, he is adept at creating space. That will force a quick double team and now, thanks to another transfer, Missouri can shoot the three.
Jabari Brown is that man. While the transfer from the Oregon Ducks only hit 1 of 7 threes in his season debut, he was considered one of the nation’s best shooters coming out of high school. He will help replace the scoring punch lost when Dixon was suspended. Meanwhile, small forward Laurence Bowers is starting to revert to old form. His athleticism has slowly returned and he can now step in to hit the mid range jumper relatively consistently.
The main thing for Missouri to be concerned about is letting Phil Pressey be a point guard. Too many times he tends to try and score which he could get away with earlier this season. However, with Brown in the fold and Bowers almost back to his pre-injury numbers, he needs to distribute and focus on notching steals to get his team in transition. The Tigers are lethal once they get in the open floor.
This should be a dandy from start to finish. Both teams playing pretty basketball and are extremely confident in this early part of the season. I just don’t see how the Illini stop both Oriakhi and Bowers. The size they possess should be the difference against a thin Illinois front line. My pick: Missouri 72-65.
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