No. 6 Illinois looks to bring toughness, experience to get revenge on Missouri


Photo Courtesy of Chris Bowie/Tribune

Missouri senior forward Reed Nikko (14) attempts to block the shot of Illinois’ Ayo Dosunmu (11) on Dec. 21, 2019 at the Enterprise Center in St. Louis.

By Brandon Simberg, Staff Writer

In the last two seasons, Brad Underwood’s squad has walked off the court at the Enterprise Center in Saint Louis without a win.

The Illini went into last year’s matchup as the favorite, but a 2-for-14 shooting night from deep was not a recipe for success, as the Illini lost 63-56. Underwood attributes some of that to a philosophical change on both sides of the ball.

Like No. 6 Illinois, Missouri brings back several key veterans that played in this rivalry matchup last season. On this year’s roster are last year’s starters Mark Smith, Dru Smith, Mitchell Smith, Kobe Brown and Jeremiah Tillmon, as well as key reserves Xavier Pinson and Javon Pickett. Pickett has had some strong performances in this game, going for 17 and 16 points in his two Braggin’ Rights games.

Pickett, a Belleville, Illinois, native, was committed to the Illini once-upon-a-time when John Groce was the head coach. Fellow Southern Illinois native Mark Smith committed to Groce but elected to play for Underwood for a season. He transferred to Missouri after an up-and-down freshman year. Underwood feels like there is no ill-will between him and Smith or Smith and any of the Illinois players.

“Time moves on. He’s another person on a scouting report,” Underwood said. “He’s a good player. He’s had a great career. I give Mark his props, but he’s another player on the scouting report we gotta find a way to guard.”

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For the Illini, their core group from last year is back as well. After a 1-for-5, two-point outing against the Tigers his freshman year, junior guard Ayo Dosunmu lit them up for 21 points last season.

But, there are plenty of new faces in the matchup for Illinois this year, including freshmen guards Adam Miller and Andre Curbelo and junior transfer Jacob Grandison. Senior Da’Monte Williams, who has played in four Braggin’ Rights games, has relayed a simple message to the newcomers about what this rivalry entails.

“Bring your big boy pants,” Williams told them. “Every game from here on out is gonna be a dog fight so you gotta be ready.”

Illinois was one of the best rebounding teams in the country last season, but Missouri won the battle on the glass in their win over the Illini. They also forced 17 Illinois turnovers, causing Underwood to be unhappy with the team’s toughness. Fast forward a year and the Illini lead the country in rebound rate, grabbing 65% of all missed shots. Williams feels like his group has that toughness Underwood is looking for.

“I feel like we definitely have that fight in us,” Williams said. “Now it’s just time for us to go out there and show it.”

Due to COVID-19, Saturday’s contest will not be played in St. Louis. After Missouri won a coin flip, it was determined that they would host the matchup this season, though the rivalry will return to a neutral court game the following year. Underwood understands the game will feel different without 20,00 screaming fans.

Typically, Underwood does not put too much stock into non-conference games. But getting a Braggin’ Rights win after two straight losses is important to him this year.

“I try to never get hyped for non-league games, but this one is different,” Underwood said. “I didn’t do a very good job last year. We weren’t the same team that played Missouri that played Iowa at the end of the season. We were searching.”

Tip-off is set for 7 p.m. central time and can be watched on ESPNU.