The Maneater

Missouri boasts Illinois’ exes into Braggin’ Rights

Three former Illinois signees will start for MU as the Tigers try to snap a five-game skid in the annual rivalry game in St. Louis.

Missouri guard Mark Smith boxes out CAU center Hayden Koval on a free throw during an eventual 68-55 win for the Tigers on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2018 at Mizzou Arena.

ST. LOUIS – The University of Missouri basketball team’s roster has more combined wins against itself than it has against the University of Illinois.

1-0.

Illinois (4-7) has won the last five installments of the annual Braggin’ Rights Game, a trend Missouri (7-3) hopes to break on Dec. 22 in the 38th chapter of the neutral-court holiday rivalry. Tip-off is set for 7 p.m. Saturday at Enterprise Center in St. Louis. It will be televised on Big Ten Network.

No one on MU’s roster, including its coaching staff, was on the 2012 team that most recently conquered the Fighting Illini.

Then there’s Mark Smith, a sophomore transfer – from Illinois.

Smith scored 11 points for Illinois as a freshman last December while the Fighting Illini beat up on Missouri early then held on for a 70-64 upset. Back at Enterprise Center Saturday, Smith will be in the opposite huddle at the same game. He will be the first-ever player to suit up for both teams in the storied rivalry. He is also one of three Missouri starters who were at one point not just committed, but signed to play at Illinois.

There’s also freshman Javon Pickett and sophomore Jeremiah Tilmon, who was greeted with jeers from the Illinois crowd at last year’s contest. The trio, entirely from the St. Louis metro area, is combining for 29.3 of Missouri’s 68 points per game.

“I remember last year Jeremiah got booed at the beginning, but that's about it,” Smith said Friday. “It’s just another game.”

Tilmon will have the attention of Illinois fans divided among Smith and Pickett this time around. Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin said Friday he hasn’t talked to them much about what they should expect from the crowd, not wanting to overemphasize it and distract them from the task at hand.

“I think the energy level, the butterflies, whatever you have as an individual player,” Martin said, “that doesn’t matter no matter who you’re playing against. The most important thing is to be locked in, carry out your assignments, don't get consumed with the other stuff.”

Martin thinks Smith’s resolve and work ethic have made that easy for him. The marksman has been acclaimed for his 3-point shooting prowess so far this season, but Martin has never been one to evaluate success based on scoring.

“He’s done a great job shooting the ball, but more than that just being a sound leader and leading by his actions,” Martin said. “One of my assistant coaches described him as a true professional. And as coaches we tend to take credit for certain things, but really [Smith] just simply puts the time into it. He’s committed to it. He’s one of those guys I have to keep out of the gym.”

Senior Jordan Geist, 0-3 against Illinois in his MU career, said the atmosphere won’t be too much of a problem for Smith because he witnessed Tilmon’s treatment last season and is prepared.

“He saw what they said to Tilly,” Geist said. “He saw what the crowd antics are.”

And that Tilmon-Smith-Pickett trio will try to help MU veterans Geist and Kevin Puryear to their first win against the Illini. It will be the seniors’ last chance after three straight years of defeat.

“I’m competitive; I don't like losing,” Puryear said. “When you lose competitively to the same team, that's kind of frustrating, and the other thing is we’ve got to wait a whole year to play them again.”

Last year’s loss is still on Puryear’s mind. He remembers Missouri entering largely unblemished at 10-2 against the struggling 8-5 Illini. He remembers the supposedly talent-advantaged Tigers’ complacency and stagnant offense that resulted in a 20-point halftime deficit. He remembers it shrinking to as few as 4 points in the second half before proving too much for Missouri to rally from.

“They punched us in the mouth last year,” Puryear said.

Illinois’ record might be as misleading as anyone’s in the country this season, as well. Five of its seven losses are to teams ranked No. 52 or higher in the NCAA’s NET rankings. Four are in the top 35. Three are in the top 25. The other two outliers are to Power Five teams with records above .500 – Notre Dame and Xavier.

“Last year taught us that record means absolutely nothing,” Puryear said.

Xavier, as it so happens, was the victim of Missouri’s most well-rounded performance of the young season Tuesday night, a 71-56 win that was closer to a 30-point game for its majority. It was MU’s fourth straight win after a 3-3 start amounted widespread concern. Tilmon tallied a double-double with 23 points and 10 rebounds in the win.

“We played our best defense for 36 minutes and then we fell off a little bit,” Geist said. “We’re trying to build off that defense that we had against Xavier.”

Missouri and Illinois also have a common loss on their records in Iowa State. The Illini’s schedule has also included blueblood Gonzaga and two ranked conference opponents, Ohio State and Nebraska. The losses are damning, but as Martin and players pointed out, Illinois may be one of the most battle-tested teams in the country.

That tough schedule, the streak and Missouri’s cast of Illinois exes may make it as compelling a showdown as the rivalry has seen in recent years. Martin compared the rivalry to Indiana-Purdue, which he experienced as a player at Purdue in the 1990s. Pulling from that experience, there’s one lesson he has stressed especially about this kind of game.

“A rivalry game like this, with so much background with it, you've got to be prepared for a close game,” Geist said. “It’s gonna be a close game. And when you lose this one going into Christmas break, you have a couple days to sit on it, not doing anything. So I want to go out with a win.”

Edited by Emily Leiker | eleiker@themaneater.com

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