Very quietly, Illinois and Missouri have one of the fiercest non-conference rivalries in the country. Tonight, with a combined record of 22-1, these two square off in St. Louis at the Scotttrade Center for a neutral floor battle.
Little was expected of the Illini heading into the season, and at 11-1 and ranked #24 in the country, Bruce Webber’s club has been one of the most pleasant early-season surprises. They reeled off their first eleven games of the season before being derailed by UNLV last weekend. However, their loss was very eye-opening; shooting 25% from the floor and getting blown out in Chicago (a virtual home game) by 16 points. The loss was their first, but the offensive woes were nothing know for Illinois.
Illinois struggled to beat Illinois State in their Thanksgiving tournament final, and looked absolutely dreadful in a win over St. Bonaventure, narrowly winning 48-43. They also had a close call with a terrible Cornell team just a week ago. Now, the flipside; they looked very good beating Gonzaga two weekends ago, and also own wins over Richmond and Maryland.
However, they haven’t seen anything like the offensive firepower the Tigers are bringing to the gym tonight. The closest thing they have seen to them athletically and stylistically was UNLV – who just laid the lumber on ‘em, running the Illini out of the gym. I expect the same thing to happen tonight.
After watching most every Top 50 team at least two or three times this season, I would rank Missouri as the number one passing team in the nation. No one moves the ball as unselfishly and as quickly as the Tigers. Syracuse is a close second and Carolina can be devastating in transition, but no team is as fluid overall as Mizzou.
While Illinois has truly only been tested two or three times, and looked somewhere between “awful” and “pretty good”, Missouri have been tested many times and looked dazzling in all of them. The pummeled Notre Dame by 30 before Abromitis got hurt. The rocked Cal (who was ranked at the time) by FORTY points, and their closest game all season was a ten point win over Villanova. In their next ‘closest’ game, they won by 22.
Read that again. In their second closest game of the season they won by 22 points! This team is a legit Final Four contender and they can defend all 94 feet of the court. Expect them to run circles around Illinois’ plodding big men and to force their shaky backcourt into a ton of bad shots and turnovers. I love Mizzou, even laying the seven on a neutral floor.