Brandon Paul and the Fighting Illini seniors get one last shot at victory against the Missouri Tigers
By B.J. RAINS FS Midwest
ST. LOUIS –Illinois guard Brandon Paul has had plenty of memorable games during his time in Champaign. He scored 43 points in an upset win over No. 5 Ohio State last year and had 35 points in a big road win at No. 10 Gonzaga just two weeks ago.
He’d likely trade a scoreless game Saturday if it meant getting his first Braggin’ Rights win over the Missouri Tigers.
Paul and Illinois seniors D.J. Richardson and Tyler Griffey will look to end a three-game losing streak to Missouri and get their first win over the rival Tigers in their final chance when they meet at the Scottrade Center Saturday evening in the 32nd annual Bud Light Braggin’ Rights game.
“No doubt,” Paul said. “It’s definitely a motivation factor coming in. You try to prepare for every game the same and treat every opponent as a great opponent and you respect everyone but these are the types of games you really get up for.
“It would obviously be great to get this game, being a senior to be able to look back and say you got at least one of them.”
Nobody on the Illini roster has experienced a win over Missouri thanks to the Tigers taking the last three. Saturday will be the third consecutive year that both teams are ranked and the second in which the teams have combined to lose only one game.
Illinois and first-year coach John Groce enter with a perfect 12-0 record and a No. 10 ranking in the Associated Press poll. They beat Butler in the championship game to win the prestigious Maui Invitational last month before winning in impressive fashion at No. 10 Gonzaga on Dec. 8.
But a win over No. 12 Missouri would certainly give them another signature win come NCAA Tournament time. The Tigers are ranked No. 12 in the Associated Press poll and enter with a 9-1 record, their only blemish a 81-65 loss at then-No. 2 Louisville on Nov. 23.
It’s been a work in progress for Missouri and second-year coach Frank Haith, who starts two senior transfers and a third senior in Laurence Bowers who missed all of last season with a knee injury. But junior guard Phil Pressey has been the key, averaging 12.3 points and 5.8 assists through the first ten games.
“I’ve known Frank for a long time,” Groce told the Belleville News Democrat Thursday. “I know his kids will be ready to play. He did a terrific job last year and has done a good job molding a lot of new faces. As I watch them, there’s really only one guy in Pressey who played in last year’s Braggin’ Rights game.
“Bowers did two years ago, but the rest of those guys are new guys. I’ve enjoyed watching them. They’re very good; they’re very talented. It’s going to take a heck of an effort on our part to compete on Saturday. … A lot of it comes down to execution. A lot of it comes down to players making plays.”
The Tigers will have to find a way to slow Paul if they plan to keep him winless in the series. The talented guard is averaging a team best 18.8 points per game and is hitting 46 percent of his shots from the field. Paul has hit 33-of-83 shots from behind the 3-point line, an impressive 40 percent clip.
Tracy Abrams both contribute 11.5 points per game for Illinois while Griffey, a St. Louis native, adds 8.9 points. Joseph Bertrand is averaging 8.6.
The 6-8 Bowers leads Missouri with 16.3 points per game while Alex Oriakhi, a senior transfer from UConn, has been a nice addition with 10.6 points and 8.6 rebounds per game.
Illinois leads the all-time series 27-15 but holds just an 11-10 advantage the past 21 years. Missouri is looking to win four straight for the first time since 1991-94.
Paul and the Illinois seniors hope to keep that from happening.
“I’ve heard them talking about it,” Groce told the Belleville News Democrat. “They’re aware of that. The only thing I would say, regardless of what their record is previously (against Mizzou), I’ve got news for them: It ain’t changing. It really has no effect on Saturday night’s game. This is a separate game than the other three that they played.”
A sellout crowd is expected yet again for what has become an annual can’t miss game near Christmas. The Tigers won a thrilling 78-74 game over the Illini last year and this year’s matchup of highly ranked squads figures to be another instant classic.
“It’s definitely one of the most incredible atmospheres I’ve seen,” Paul said. “It’s a blessing to get to play in this game every year. It’s just crazy. It’s almost indescribable. We can say all we want but once you finally get to the Scottrade Center and see the fans out there, it’s a great moment.”
Tipoff between the two rivals is scheduled for 5 p.m.