Braggin’ Rights game will be special, as always

Missouri’s Johnathan Williams III reaches for a loose ball against Illinois’ Kendrick Nunn and Jon Ekey in the second half of the 2013 Braggin’ Rights game at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis. Illinois won last year’s eidtion, 65-64. The teams will meet again Saturday.

As Illinois head coach John Groce has said, when it comes to the Braggin’ Rights game, you can throw the teams’ records out the window. 

Illinois enters the annual contest at 8-3, while Missouri sits at a mediocre 5-5. But everyone knows both squads will bring it when they meet in St. Louis for the 34th time since 1980.

I attended my first Braggin’ Rights game two years ago, and was on hand to witness last year’s thrilling 65-64 Illini victory as well. The event truly does live up to the hype as one of the best rivalries in college sports, and the atmosphere at Scottrade Center is unlike anything else I’ve experienced. The game always takes place just before Christmas, and I’m only slightly ashamed to say I probably look forward to this game more than Christmas day itself.

Much of the buzz surrounding the Braggin’ Rights game each year comes from the simple fact that these teams don’t like each other. The players might not have any personal issues between them, but that doesn’t stop the occasional on-court skirmishes resulting from the intensity of these games. This year’s matchup is just begging for Leron Black-initiated dust-up.

The fans sure don’t like each other either. The disdain has mounted after years of close games between the two schools, and both fan bases tend to look down on the other as inferior.

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In 2001, a Tigers fan endeared himself to the Illini faithful by tackling Chief Illiniwek during his halftime dance. A Mizzou fan holding a sign at the 2012 game that designated my school as the “University of Incest” also did not help cure my personal distaste for the University of Missouri and its supporters. So, yeah, there’s no love lost between the fans.

It also doesn’t hurt that an awesome Braggin’ Rights trophy is on the line each year. Have you seen that thing? It’s like five feet tall. Games always seem more significant when the winner gets to hoist a big ol’ trophy, while the losers trudge to the locker room. 

However, this year’s game won’t quite have its usual luster due to the circumstances surrounding both teams’ respective seasons. It will be just the eighth time since 1980 that neither Illinois nor Missouri is ranked in the Top 25 when they take the floor in St. Louis, and nine Braggin’ Rights games have featured both teams with numbers by their names. 

So far this season, the Illini have shown the capability to be pretty good, but Mizzou has looked just plain bad. Under first-year coach Kim Anderson, the Tigers opened their season with a home loss to UMKC. They haven’t been competitive in any of their other four losses, all of which came against decent to good competition. The Tigers are currently ranked No. 159 in basketball statistician Ken Pomeroy’s College Basketball Rankings, while Illinois sits at No. 35. An Illini loss to Mizzou would not look good come Selection Sunday.

In a down year for the Tigers, a bright spot has been freshman Montaque Gill-Caesar, who is averaging 12.6 points per game. Another freshman, 6-foot-8 forward Jakeenan Gant, scored 13 points in his college basketball debut against Xavier after being reinstated following an NCAA suspension. He’ll give Mizzou an added dimension in the frontcourt for Illini forwards Nnanna Egwu and Malcolm Hill to worry about.

Illinois has the firepower to beat the Tigers, but we’ve all seen the Illini go ice cold before. An off-shooting night coupled with a fired-up Mizzou squad could spell trouble for Groce’s team, especially if the game comes down to the wire.

We’re getting to a point in the season where no wins are guaranteed. But one thing is always guaranteed when it comes to the Braggin’ Rights game: 

It’s going to be fun.

Alex is a junior in AHS. He can be reached at [email protected] and @aroux94.