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Braggin' Rights game on the horizon

No. 10 Illinois takes on No. 12 Missouri on Saturday

By Jeff Mayfield

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[December 19, 2012]  I told Paul Klee (former Illini beat writer for the Champaign News-Gazette) before he left town that I wished him well and nothing but good luck. But, I also told him that I thought he was going to miss something really special in Champaign this season. I didn't know what or how special, I just had a hunch. For some crazy reason, I had a good feeling about the Fighting Illini.

I have no idea why. I was talking out of my hat. Our Illini writer, Greg Taylor, asked me if I had taken too much cold medicine. Maybe I inadvertently walked too close to one of those medical marijuana places. I wasn't making sense. You see, both of us witnessed last year's collapse. We may have even melted down more than the team did.

I've just always felt that our players were better than they were showing. I never blamed the coaches for all of it. Players have to make plays and execute, and the Illini hadn't done a lot of that the last couple of seasons. I even asked Greg before coach Bruce Weber's final year began if he thought we'd be better if we pushed the basketball more instead of playing Weber's more deliberate possession game. He never did give me an answer except to say that he would play Myke Henry a lot more -- he loves that kid!

My only point in asking Greg that question was that if you have a team that makes 20 turnovers a game in a half-court offense, what do you have to lose by trying something else? Maybe they won't turn it over as much in a faster-paced, up-tempo offense. I always figure that the coaches are smarter than us. They must have thought of that. But for some reason they stuck to their guns. I just think that sometimes coaches are too stubborn for their own good. I should point out that a glance at the stats page shows that this faster-paced edition of the Illini isn't even averaging 13 turnovers a game (12.67 if my math is correct), so maybe our idea wasn't as far-fetched as we thought.

While I felt like something positive was on the horizon for Illinois, I didn't dream that it would be going along this well. I was thinking they would be more like 11-1 or 10-2 at this point in the proceedings, not 12-0! I thought it would take longer for the players to adjust to coach John Groce and for him to fully assess and judge our talent to know what to do with them. However, I never thought that our squad would buy in as quickly as they did either. I don't think they are immune to the booing and criticism that had come their way over the last couple of years. I think the negativity wore them down. But rather than sulk and mope, it appears that they went out and did something about it.

They look stronger and more fit. They look like they are in better physical condition. And they look like they have improved their shooting ability. I have no idea what they did last summer, but I do know that those aspects can go a long ways toward achieving success.

Again, as I scan their statistics, it bears out what I'm saying. Illinois is shooting a fine .454 from the field, which is even more amazing when you consider how many of the Illini's shots have come from distance this season. Case in point, they are connecting at almost 40 percent from 3-point range (I believe it is exactly .386). And their 70 percent shooting from the free-throw line is probably better than most fans would guess at this point.

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As we turn the schedule to the page showing stiffer competition, I guess we will all begin to see what this team is made of. By playing Missouri and Auburn, we'll see much more physical play and much more athletic teams. I think our guys will welcome that. I don't believe that they will back down from anybody! The experts saw them as the ninth-best team in the league. I always thought we were better and I said so ... I believe! I am one of those kooks who believe that positive encouragement and enthusiasm, coupled with not jerking guys out every time they make a mistake, allows for looser, more confident players. So, sue me if you don't agree. That usually results in more positive play and success -- not always, but I'm just saying...

At any rate, once the Illini get through those two contests, their reward will be the Big Ten opener at Purdue's Mackey Arena. How's that for a start to the league season? Then they get two games at home versus Ohio State and Minnesota before a road tilt at Wisconsin. ... I love the Big Ten schedule makers, don't you?

So, I don't know what's going to happen at the Braggin' Rights game in St. Louis. I would love for us to come out and make a statement. I don't believe this group of seniors has beaten the Tigers. This hopeful season could sure get a lot sweeter to me if the Illini could bring down ol' Mizzou!

But how can that be accomplished? First, you must limit your turnovers. You must go toe-to-toe with them and not back down. You must crash the boards. You don't have to win the rebounding battle, but you do have to keep it close. Believe it or not, Illinois has outrebounded its opponents 36.6-32.8 per game for a 3.8 margin. You must also get loose balls. It seems that Illinois has been a step slower than Missouri the last couple of seasons -- that can't happen Saturday.

It would be nice to get some breaks... maybe the ball bounces our way a little bit, maybe the intangibles go our way, maybe Bill Walton announces our game and tells the refs to whistle 65 fouls on Missouri, or maybe our bench gives us a huge lift. We don't need all those things, but enough to put Mizzou on its collective heels. If we shoot it like we are capable of, that would take so much pressure off us. And most of all, our defense has to be stifling. The Illini are holding teams to just over 40 percent shooting and limiting them to 32 percent from distance. If we can defend them that well or better, especially without getting into foul trouble, there is no reason that Illinois could not beat them (and yes, I know that Illinois is ranked higher, but I also don't know if that is correct. I do believe that the Illini have played a tougher schedule so far, but because Missouri is on a winning streak in this matchup, I would make them the favorite in this contest -- but, I still like the Illini's chances).

Missouri is athletic; they're physical and seem to be on a roll in St. Louis. But it's time for that to change. It's time for the Illini to assert their own will. It's time for Illinois to reclaim the Braggin' Rights trophy! It's your time, Illini!


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