Last year, Illini fans expected a cakewalk in the non-Braggin’ Rights game at Mizzou. But karma chose otherwise.
From the tedious Coin Flip Show which determined that Columbia, not Champaign would host the contest; to the listless performance by an eventual #1 seed: Everything sucked for Illini fans.
Ironically, because Mizzou is crap this year, the pressure is again on the Illini this year. Favored by fifteen points, Illinois simply can’t lose to a Tigers team that’s already lost to UMKC, Liberty and Wichita State.
Mark Smith is gone. Mitchell Smith is gone. Dru Smith is gone. Jeremiah Tilmon is gone.
Brad Underwood identified point-forward Kobe Brown and Illini nemesis Javon Pickett as the Tigers to watch for.
Brown is hitting 56% from the floor, and leading Mizzou with 15 points per game. He’s listed at 6’8″ and 250 lbs., thus making him one of the few Tigers that could offer any resistance to Kofi Cockburn. Underwood expects Mizzou to throw multiple defenders at Kofi.
So maybe you can expect a defense-by-irritant approach against Kofi. It worked well for Marquette and Arizona. But it also gives Kofi the opportunity to improve his passing game, which is the most amazing aspect of this young Illini season in my arrogant opinion.
Mizzou lacks size, and the guys with size lack experience. De Smet Jesuit grad Yaya Keita, a 6’9″ 240 lb. freshman, will spell the veterans, but you cab expect Cuonzo Martin to throw him at BBV and Omar Payne, while Kofi’s getting a breather.
Apart from Brown, the Tigers can’t shoot. They’re abysmal from the arc, connecting on 25% to 27% among those that have launced more than five attempts on the season. Brown leads the way at 27.3%. Pickett is 21% for the year.
Naturally, they’ll have career nights against the Illini, right?
Other Tigers to watch for are DaJuan Gordon, whose initial defensive instruction came from Chris Lowery and Bruce Weber. Those dudes can teach defense (if nothing else). K-State traded Gordon for Mark Smith during the off-season, and despite how also-ran Smith has been for the Wildcatters, it’s hard to argue that Gordon is better. The 15/17 assist-to-turnover ratio is telling. He has 13 steals on the year, second on the team only to Brown (19). He’s 35% from the floor, and 26% from the arc.
Nine Tigers play, and six Tigers play 30 minutes. It’s exactly the rotation paradigm you’d expect from the Keady Tree. Sophomore swingman Ronnie DeGray seems like the kind of match-up nightmare that Underwood likes to moan about. The 6’6″ sophomore is averagind 9 points and 6 rebounds per game. He’s played in all 11 for the 6-5 Tigers, starting three. You see his role expanding as the season develops, and you fear him having his break-out game against Illinois.
But that’s because you’re an Illini fan. Fear is home to you. It’s practically your safe space.
Also, if Illinois doesn’t win tonight, shut it all down.