GAME OF THE NIGHT
- Missouri vs. Illinois, 8 p.m. CST in St. Louis (ESPN2)
From 2000 to 2008, Illinois owned Missouri in the Braggin’ Rights series. Year after year, the Tigers found new ways to lose by mishandling a potential game-tying attempt (2006)
, slipping on watery residue from the Scottrade Center’s hockey rink on the final possession (2007
), and shooting 11% from three-point range (2008
). One winter, embarrassed MU fans even dumped popcorn
on Quin Snyder
‘s head. Yes, the series was that ugly. But two years ago, fate shifted to the Tigers’ side. Missouri dominated from start to finish in 2009, and last season, the Tigers edged Illinois thanks to a late-game collapse
by Bruce Weber
‘s team. The losing streak is a distant memory and the Tigers own this series now.
That brings us to 2011. No matter how confident MU fans may be with their top-10 ranking, undefeated record and two consecutive series victories, the 24th-ranked Illini will provide Frank Haith with his stiffest test of the season. Missouri has not seen size like this before, and it will need to be creative in guarding 7’1” center Meyers Leonard. The Tigers have handled players like Harper Kamp (California) and Mouphtaou Yarou (Villanova), but Leonard is one of the better forwards the Tigers will see all year. He commands respect in the paint, and he’s also a decent passer with the ability to burn Missouri’s double-teams. As usual, Haith’s team will need to use its speed to burn a slower Illinois team. Against one of the fastest rosters in the country, the Illini have to slow the tempo and let Leonard go to work. Bradley transfer Sam Maniscalco, no stranger to Scottrade after visiting the arena four years in a row for the Missouri Valley Conference tournament, will also need to settle this young team down as the point guard. He’s been a difference-maker this season as one of the most experienced players on Weber’s team, and it is imperative for him to lead by example.
Phil Pressey Will Lead Missouri Against The Illini Tonight
On Missouri’s side, Phil Pressey will have to serve as the catalyst. He’ll never have a strength advantage against any point guard, but he could run into some trouble with Maniscalco (6’0” but strong), Brandon Paul (6’4”) and D.J. Richardson (6’3”). Again, though, his quickness is unmatched by just about everybody in college basketball, and as the Big 12′s assists leader, he can control the game without scoring a point. That’s what Marcus Denmon is for. The senior All-American candidate struggled against William and Mary over the weekend, but he’s allowed an off night every once in awhile. When he’s set, he almost never misses from three-point land, and if he’s on his game, he will be the best player on the floor tonight.
Unless you’ve attended a Braggin’ Rights game in St. Louis, you have no idea how intense the environment is. Haith may have watched last year’s game on tape, but not even he is ready for this atmosphere. There is no non-conference matchup quite like it — the arena is evenly split between Missouri and Illinois fans, and on each basket, one side erupts as if it has won the National Championship. Luckily for the Tigers, they have a more grizzled roster with five seniors, four of whom are now playing in their fourth Braggin’ Rights game.
The key individual matchup is… Meyers Leonard vs. Ricardo Ratliffe. Leonard is the key to this entire contest. Although St. Louis native Tyler Griffey is a starter and key contributor, Leonard is the centerpiece of this team — especially against a smaller opponent in Missouri. If he gets into early foul trouble, Illinois will have a lot of problems since it lacks depth in the frontcourt. Leonard will see double-teams all night when he touches the ball, and Ratliffe will be at least one of those defenders tugging on his jersey for 40 minutes. When Ratliffe has the ball, it will also be interesting to watch how he handles the match-up with Leonard. He scores a lot of his buckets on layups, putbacks and turnaround hook shots off the backboard, but he’s not the kind of player that can always take a 7’1” defender off the dribble and create his own shot. Ratliffe must find a way to utilize his quickness against Leonard, and Phil Pressey must find him on screen-and-rolls since Haith’s offense calls for that play on almost every possession.
Missouri will win if… It scores in transition and forces turnovers. That sounds like a key to the game for a Mike Anderson team, but it’s true for Haith’s team as well. MU is actually converting better in transition than it did a year ago, and that’s what it has to do against Illinois. In his first three wins against Mike Anderson, Bruce Weber did a great job of controlling the tempo and letting his team go to work in the halfcourt. The Tigers don’t utilize full-court pressure anymore, but the basic principles remain: they want to get out and run, and they want to disrupt the opponent defensively. That’s how they dismantled Notre Dame, California and Villanova, and it’s how they must beat Illinois.
Illinois will win if… It makes this game a Big Ten fist fight and stays level-headed. Illinois is bigger and stronger than Missouri at almost every position. It has more physical guards, and it has a more physical frontcourt. If Weber can concoct another game plan to use the shot clock and limit turnovers, the Illini should be able to score at will in the paint and win the rebounding battle. That all hinges on this team’s ability to keep its cool. MU’s defenders will fly all over the place with active hands, trying to deflect every pass in their vicinity. These Illinois guards can counter that by staying poised, and Maniscalco needs to be especially steady here. He’s the guy that everything depends on, even though he’s in his first season playing for Weber. At Bradley, he earned a reputation as a leader and a winner, and he cannot get rattled in the spotlight tonight.
OTHER GAMES TO WATCH
- Texas Tech at Oral Roberts, 7:05 PM CST
Fresh off a blowout victory at Xavier, Oral Roberts is flying high and should be favored in this game against Tech tonight. ORU is used to knocking off Big 12 foes: in the last decade, it has beaten both Missouri and Kansas. Scott Sutton’s program is the class of the Summit League, and it looks like a contender once against this season at 8-4. Billy Gillispie is still trying to figure things out with this Texas Tech team, as it has failed every test presented to it. Without consistent point guard play and a slump from senior Robert Lewandowski, the Red Raiders must find a way to execute better offensively. Otherwise, it could be a long night in Tulsa.
- St. Mary’s at Baylor, 9 PM CST in Las Vegas
After winning at BYU, we’re pretty sure Baylor is an elite basketball team. There’s a lot of time for that to change, of course, but Pierre Jackson and A.J. Walton have been lifesavers at the point guard position. This team is finally playing the kind of selfless basketball Scott Drew has been waiting for, and Perry Jones III has lived up to expectations after returning from a suspension. In five games, Jones is averaging more than 16 per game in the scoring department, and he’s shooting nearly 70 percent from the field. If only the Bears could rebound better– BYU’s forwards embarrassed Jones, Quincy Miller and the rest of the crew by grabbing 16 offensive boards. On paper, a team with this size should not allow that to happen. Baylor can redeem itself by keeping Rob Jones off the glass, as he’s averaging 11 rebounds per game for 10-1 St. Mary’s. Jones, the former transfer from San Diego, is undersized at 6’6” but still tenacious on the court. He has grabbed at least 10 boards in all but one game this season, but it’s important to remember that the Gaels’ schedule has not been challenging. They have played only a handful of decent teams: Northern Iowa (win), Denver (loss) and Weber State (win). That’s why this game may actually be more of a test for St. Mary’s than for Baylor.
In a relatively surprising result, USC actually knocked off an improved TCU team by 24 points on Monday, thanks in large part to a 25-point, seven-assist effort by point guard Maurice Jones. With Jio Fontan out for the season, Jones is the most important player on Kevin O’Neill’s roster. Jones is a 5’7” sparkplug with a lot of quickness, so Tyshawn Taylor and his recovering knee better watch out. Still, this Kansas team is too good to lose this game. And the Jayhawks should have a newfound focus after the debacle against Davidson earlier this week. Taylor gets a lot of grief for his high turnover rate this season, but he wasn’t the only problem against the Wildcats. This team just does not execute like most Bill Self teams do, and that has to improve in a Pac-12 road environment tonight. USC does not have a ton of offensive firepower, and it hardly has any threats from beyond the arc. Still, O’Neill’s a good coach who can gameplan against anybody, and his team will have the home crowd in its favor. This won’t be a cakewalk for Kansas.