Previewing Braggin’ Rights: Illinois vs. MissouriPosted by Alex Moscoso (@AlexPMoscoso) on December 21st, 2013
If one were to grade Illinois’ season performance before heading into Saturday’s Braggin’ Rights game against Missouri, they would probably have to give the Illini an “I” for incomplete. John Groce’s team is 9-2 with no especially bad losses, but no significantly good wins either. Their two losses against Georgia Tech and Oregon were on the road and down to the wire; a free throw made or different bounce of the ball and the Illini might currently sit undefeated with a different season trajectory. But Illinois is where it is and today’s game against Missouri provides the last chance for the Illini to notch a non-conference resume win.
The Tigers have won braggin’ rights for four seasons in a row, but before that run the Illini had won nine years straight. If John Groce is going to start a new streak in the rivalry today, here are three things he’ll need his team to do:
- Keep charging the glass and getting offensive rebounds. Unlike last season, this year’s team is not effective at scoring beyond the arc (33.8 percent from deep). The way they’ve countered their lack of long-range shooting is by creating additional scoring opportunities from the offensive glass. The Illini have an offensive rebounding percentage of 37.1 percent (which ranks in the top 50 nationally) and three of their starters are averaging two or more offensive boards per game. They’ll need to keep this up against a Missouri team that so far has been excellent at minimizing its opponents’ offensive rebounds. Since the Illini do not rely on a perimeter attack from behind the arc, there should be fewer long rebounds for guards like Jabari Brown and Earnest Ross to grab. Illinois should stick to what it does best — drive to the rim and have others follow behind for putbacks.
- Hit timely shots from deep. In the previous bullet, I stated that the Illini should keep driving to the basket. And that’s true — they mostly should. However, two of Missouri’s leading scorers (Brown and Ross) take half of their shots from deep and hit on them at 42 and 33 percent of the time, respectively. Illinois needs to hit a few threes of their own just to keep up. More importantly, they’ll need to hit them at certain momentum-swinging points of the game, either to stop a run from Missouri, or to build a lead of their own. Jon Ekey is the only Illini player truly capable of getting hot from downtown — he’s shooting 41.7 percent on the season –- but he has been streaky from game to game. Aside from Ekey, Rayvonte Rice, Joseph Bertrand and Tracy Abrams are capable of hitting the long ball at certain moments, and one of this trio will need to hit a big shot or two today.
- Close out at the end of games. If the Illini had been able to keep their composure at the ends of their two losses, they may still well be undefeated. In both games, they had a lead in the last five minutes of the game but in both cases buckled under the pressure. Against Georgia Tech, the Illini were unable to get their offense going late, while against Oregon, they were unable to stop the Ducks. In both cases Illinois hurt itself with bad execution and too many turnovers. Specifically, Abrams and Nnanna Egwu — the returning starters from last year — have made several inexcusable plays at the ends of games that have led to these losses. Egwu gave up a turnover against the Yellow Jackets that gave up the lead, and Abrams committed turnovers in both games during the last five minutes. To beat Missouri, these two players will need to lead theiryoung team through the fire in the final minutes, not hurt its cause.