Bitter rivals clash, as Illinois battles Missouri

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Updated: 12/21/2013 10:55 am

St. Louis, MO (SportsNetwork.com) - The annual Braggin' Rights clash between Illinois and Missouri adds another chapter on Saturday, as the Fighting Illini try to hand the 23rd-ranked Tigers their first loss of the season.

Illinois opened the season with seven straight wins, but a 67-64 setback at Georgia Tech in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge on Dec. 3 started the team on a trend that has seen it split its last four decisions. The most recent outing for the Illini took place last Saturday in Portland against nationally-ranked Oregon, and it was the Ducks who prevailed in a 71-64 final. Following this contest, Illinois will be idle until next Saturday when it takes on Illinois- Chicago in the Windy City, and then returns home three days later for its Big Ten opener versus Indiana.

Missouri is a perfect 10-0 on the season, and is the lone team in the SEC still sporting an unblemished record. The Tigers were last in action on Sunday, Dec. 15 and took out visiting Western Michigan, 66-60. That game marked the finale of a three-game homestand, and Mizzou is 7-0 in Columbia this season -- this coming after a season in which it went 17-0 at home and owns an incredible 40-1 home mark since 2011-12. Non-conference bouts with NC State and Long Beach State will take place over the next couple of weeks, and the Tigers will open SEC play at home versus Georgia on Jan. 8.

Illinois owns a 27-16 lead in the all-time series with Missouri, which includes a 20-12 mark in St. Louis. This matchup is widely considered to be one of the top non-conference rivalries in college basketball, and Mizzou has won the last four meetings, the most recent of which being an 82-73 decision in St. Louis almost a year ago to the day (Dec. 22, 2012).

Despite having some talented players on the roster, Illinois isn't the most potent offensive team around, averaging 71.5 ppg behind typical shooting outputs of .448 overall and .338 from 3-point range. Where the Illini really earn their keep is at the defensive end, as foes are allowed only 60.4 ppg in hitting just 39.3 percent of their total shots, which includes a 32.1 percent showing from beyond the arc. UI also sits in the black with regard to rebounding (+5.2) and turnover (+0.5) margins, which obviously plays a key role in coming out on top more times than not. Rayvonte Rice has done a little bit of everything for Illinois this season, posting averages of 17.7 points, 5.5 rebounds and nearly two assists per game. He shares the team lead in steals (14) with Tracy Abrams, who nets 11.5 ppg while serving as the assists leader with 37. Joseph Bertrand (10.7 ppg. 5.3 rpg) rounds out the unit's double-digit scorers, and Jon Ekey (9.2 ppg, 6.4 rpg) is close to joining them. Nnanna Egwu scores a shade over eight ppg, but he is more valuable on defense as evidenced by his team-high 25 blocked shots.

Rice And Abrams both hit for 16 points, while Ekey chipped in 10, but those efforts went for naught as Illinois suffered a seven-point loss to Oregon last weekend. Some of the reasons for the setback include a disappointing 5-of-17 effort from 3-point range, and the fact that the Ducks drained 55.8 percent of their total shots, despite having their own difficulties from downtown (4- of-15). UO's bench outscored UI's, 19-9.

Missouri has been getting it done at both ends of the floor here in the early going, averaging 79.0 ppg behind shooting efforts of .497 overall and .360 from beyond the arc, while permitting 65.8 ppg behind a mere .382 field goal percentage, which includes a 27.1 showing on 3-pointers. Add a resounding +10.4 rebounding differential to the mix, and it's no wonder the team is still riding high after the first six weeks or so. About the only negative to point out at this time, is the fact that Tigers are guilty of more than 13 turnovers per outing, while goading the opposition into only 11.2. Both Jordan Clarkson and Jabari Brown are off to tremendous starts, netting 19.4 and 19.0 ppg, respectively, with the former serving as the team's primary playmaker (39 assists), and the latter one of its leading rebounders (5.5 rpg) and its 3- point specialist (27-of-64, .422). Earnest Ross (14.2 ppg, 5.6 rpg, team-high 16 steals) has also been a consistent contributor.

Brown scored 15 points, Clarkson and Ross each has 12, and Tony Criswell came off the bench to tally 10, all of which were needed as Missouri battled its way past Western Michigan last weekend. The Tigers made good on an even 50 percent of their field goal attempts, while allowing the Broncos only 30 percent success. Mizzou committed twice as many turnovers as WMU (14-7), but used a 19-11 edge in points from the bench and an 8-0 advantage out on the break to keep its undefeated record intact.

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