COLUMBIA — When the Braggin’ Rights Game is on the horizon, Missouri’s players can absolutely count on being asked about it by reporters. Given the nature of the rivalry — and the raucous atmosphere the annual showdown against Illinois produces — that’s just the way it is.
By TEREZ A. PAYLOR
The Kansas City Star
So on Monday, just moments after a convincing win over South Carolina State, it was Keion Bell and Earnest Ross’ turn to be quizzed about Illinois, mainly because they were the two players that coach Frank Haith brought with him to the podium. There was just one problem: Both players transferred to Missouri last season, and thus, have never played in the game.
So after about the third question posed to the players about the matchup against the undefeated Illini, which starts at 5 p.m. Saturday at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis, Haith could no longer hold his tongue.
“I’ve never seen that (kind of atmosphere),” said Haith, a 25-year coaching veteran, who experienced it for the first time last year in MU’s 78-74 win. “So a neutral-court game with that kind of atmosphere, surely they would have never seen that.”
But that logic doesn’t just apply to Bell and Ross, who transferred from Pepperdine and Auburn, respectively. It also applies to most of Haith’s team. Of the 11 scholarships players on the roster, only junior point guard Phil Pressey and senior forward Laurence Bowers have played in the game before.
The rest of the team will be experiencing the intensity of the Braggin’ Rights Game for the first time.
“I’m just going to preach to the guys how big of a game it is, and hopefully they follow my lead and Phil Pressey’s — we know what it’s about,” Bowers said. “It’s 10,000 Mizzou fans on one side and 10,000 Illinois fans on the other side. Whenever you have an atmosphere like that, it makes it that much more of a big deal.”
Perhaps the only thing that figures to be more impressive than the atmosphere on Saturday is Illinois, which has made quite an impression on several Tigers with its strong early season play.
“They’re playing at a high level right now, had some really good wins so far,’’ Haith said.
No. 10 Illinois, 12-0, won the Maui Invitational and has a road win over a one-loss Gonzaga team that was ranked No. 10 at the time. The Illini are led by star senior guard Brandon Paul, who leads his team in points (18.8), rebounds (5.1) and assists (3.5) and teams with senior guard D.J. Richardson (11.5 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.9 assists per game) to form a backcourt duo that Haith says is as good as any in the country.
“Paul is playing like a national player-of-the-year guy right now,” Haith said. “He’s playing with such confidence.”
So too are his teammates, Haith said, who have apparently united under new coach John Groce, the former head coach at Ohio who took over in March when longtime coach Bruce Weber left to coach Kansas State after a 17-15 season in which the Illini failed to make the NCAA Tournament.
“John has done a (heck) of a job with that team in terms of getting them to play free and easy and with a lot of confidence,” Haith said. “He’s got them to buy in. … They’re playing as a unit, they’re sharing the ball and, watching them (Sunday) night, they played great defense.”
In fact, you could argue the Illini have come together in a way much like the Tigers did last season, when a strong senior class led by Kim English, Marcus Denmon and Steve Moore rallied behind a new coach — Haith — and helped the Tigers go 30-5 by playing an offensively efficient, unselfish brand of basketball.
Bowers, who would have graduated with the rest of the recruiting class of 2008 had he not shredded his knee last preseason, said it’s clear the older leaders of the Illini have done a good job of getting their supporting cast to buy in, much as the Tigers’ leaders did last year.
That certainly adds a degree of difficulty to Missouri’s task on Saturday, but Bowers thinks the Tigers are eager to extend their winning streak over the Illini to four games.
“I figure if Illinois can win nine games in a row (at one point), why can’t we?” Bowers said. “I don’t want to lose this game, and I’m going to do everything in my will — and I think my teammates will do everything in their will — to win the game
To reach Terez A. Paylor, call 816-234-4489 or send email to firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him at twitter.com/TerezPaylor.