Time to start Braggin’

Braggin' Rights 2013You’ll notice that my headline doesn’t necessarily indicate that the Illini will be the ones bragging, just that someone will be bragging after this weekend. On Saturday, Illinois will head down to St. Louis for the 33rd annual Braggin’ Rights game against Mizzou.

The Illini are coming off of a week-long rest after a disappointing road loss to Oregon last weekend, so it’s not entirely clear what we can expect from them. After losing at Georgia Tech, Illinois came back with fire in their bellies and destroyed Auburn at a “neutral site” in Atlanta. However, Auburn is not Mizzou.

Finals have ended, and Coach Groce thinks that’s going to give the team a nice relaxed attitude. “Their minds will be more free and ready to go,” Groce said in a press conference today. “You have to balance all that during finals week.”

Staying focused
Currently ranked #23 in the nation, Mizzou is undefeated. Impressive wins include a home win over #18 UCLA 80-71, and, well I guess we could say a win over Northwestern 78-67 is also of note. Aside from the Las Vegas Invitational (which they eventually won), Missouri has not played any road games. Braggin’ Rights Game is also a neutral site, but the crowd will be different from what Missouri has experienced so far this season, while Illinois has already visited hostile territory. Yes, I’m grabbing at hopeful straws.

The Illini have showed some sparks this year, but we have to face the facts that this is rebuilding time. We’re young, and the freshmen have proven they make freshmen moves. Even if Oregon got loud from time to time, the Scottrade Center is going to be deafening. I will do my best to yell louder than the other folks, but I’m just one (and a half) people. John Groce has to prepare them to play a tough team in an even tougher environment.

Groce noted that last year the game was more emotional than he anticipated, and that the team reacted poorly at times. “Trust your system,” he said of how to get his guys to focus. “You love that competitiveness that’s part of the game. We’ve got to channel that in a positive way.”

This is by no means an easy win for Missouri, and I suspect like many other Illini games it’s going to be close throughout. We have to focus on not fouling, and finishing the game strong, and we certainly have a chance to get this done.

Groce is fully aware of the issue with his bigs and their foul trouble, and noted that Nnanna Egwu has actually improved, though he could go further. In his first year, Egwu was No. 1 in fouls per minute, and that number has already gone down. “ He’s got to find a balance where he can compete and play hard without fouling,” said Groce. “I think he’s made a ton of strides.”

The focus for Groce in practice is also on consistency, and keeping the defense strong throughout the entire game. “Our defense has not been good enough late in the game,” he said. “They haven’t gotten enough stops.”

Tired of losing

Though Illinois has an overall lead in this series 20-12, Missouri is currently enjoying a 4-year winning streak (which means fellows like D.J. Richardson, Brandon Paul and Tyler Griffey never won a Braggin Rights game). As a senior, Joseph Bertrand is in charge of instilling in others how important this game is, because this is his last chance!

It’s been a really long time since Illinois won, and I’m getting really tired of losing. Also, two losses in a row is killer for morale. Moving forward with this win under our belts will be huge, especially since the Tigers are ranked and undefeated.

I’m super excited to report that I will be at the game, for the first time in many years. The last time we attended, Illinois won, so that tells you it was at least four years ago. And let me repeat, the last time we attended Illinois won, so it may be a thing.

The game will be on Saturday at 4:30 PM.

Some fun facts: 

  • Illinois won 8 consecutive Braggin’ Rights from 1983-90 and won 9 of the first 10 games in St. Louis. After Missouri won seven of nine games from 1991-99, Illinois won nine in a row from 2000-08, the longest winning streak in the history of the series.
  • Mizzou’s 4-game streak ties their longest ever.
  •  Illinois is unranked entering Braggin’ Rights for the first time in four years (perhaps a plus!).
  • Illinois is 9-6 when playing against ranked Tigers teams in the Braggin’ Rights.
  • Closest margin: 1 point, four times (1992, 1993, 2003 and 2007)
  • Illinois stands just one win away from collecting its 1,700th victory, aiming to become the 13th program in NCAA Div. I history to reach that milestone.

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