Illinois-Missouri Preview


Missouri has won the last two Braggin' Rights games against Illinois and that's all the history junior guard Michael Dixon cares about.

The neutral-site holiday-season border battle is one of the most energized, adrenaline-filled games Dixon has played in. The stands are pretty much equally divided, half wearing orange, half wearing black and gold, and both sides making plenty of noise.

Dixon remembers how satisfying it's been to win, too, and wants to keep that feeling. Before he got to Missouri, Illinois had won nine straight in the series.

"It's one of the funnest games I've ever played in my life," Dixon said. "My freshman year was really humbling, and just a great win. And the year after that was a good win.

"I'm undefeated, so I don't plan on losing to Illinois. Ever."

Both schools are ranked for the second straight season heading into Thursday night's matchup in St. Louis, with just one loss between them.

Missouri's seasoned unit under first-year coach Frank Haith is ranked No. 9 and Illinois is No. 25 under Bruce Weber, who will be coaching in his ninth Braggin' Rights game.

"I don't know if there can be a better game in the country," Weber said. "There are some great rivalries, but to have an individual game like this, it's one of a kind.

"It will be interesting to see how our young guys deal with it."

Haith, a former assistant coach at Texas, said the game might compare to the Longhorns' rivalry with Oklahoma.

"It's going to have an NCAA tournament feel, is what I hear," Haith said. "It's a game that by the end of the year, when March rolls around and that Sunday, those people in the room are talking about seedings and NCAA tournament, this is a game that will help a team."

For both schools, it's a good test just before the start of conference play.

Last year's game had a wild finish, with Missouri scoring eight points in a 9-second span of the final minute to break open a tie game in a 75-64 victory. The Tigers were No. 9 then, too, and Illinois was No. 21.

Another victory and Missouri (11-0) has its best start since 1981-82.

"It's the next game on our schedule, but I guess it's a huge rivalry," Missouri's Kim English said. "In those games you can throw the records out because that game means so much to a lot of people."

Illinois (11-1) won its first 10 games before shooting 25 percent and losing by 16 points to UNLV last week. On Monday, the Fighting Illini edged Cornell 64-60 behind a big game from 7-foot-1 Meyers Leonard, who had 19 points and a career-high 16 rebounds.

The key for Illinois will be trying to dictate a more deliberate tempo.

"We're the underdog," Weber said. "We'll get after it and see if we can disrupt them. We'll see if we can keep it close. It's not going to be easy."