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Something worth braggin’ about

Illinois guard Rayvonte Rice (24) drives to the basket on Oregon's Mike Moser during last Saturday's game in Portland, Ore. The Illini return to action Saturday against Missouri in St. Louis.
Illinois guard Rayvonte Rice (24) drives to the basket on Oregon's Mike Moser during last Saturday's game in Portland, Ore. The Illini return to action Saturday against Missouri in St. Louis.

ST. LOUIS – Missouri is unbeaten, but far from cocky, entering the annual Braggin' Rights game against Illinois.

The 23rd-ranked Tigers realize their 10-0 start, and their four-game winning streak in the series, will mean little at tip-off of the 33rd renewal of the neutral-site matchup known for its boisterous sellout crowds – half rooting for each team.

"When they score, it's going to be real loud," Missouri guard Jabari Brown said. "When we score, it's going to be real loud.

"So, you've just got keep your emotions even."

Illinois is 9-2 and facing its second straight ranked opponent after losing at Oregon a week ago. Coach John Groce said the key will be containing Missouri's perimeter game, and not getting caught up in the hoopla.

The Fighting Illini are unranked for the Missouri game for the first time in 4 years. Over the last four seasons, the schools have been a combined 72-7 entering the contest.

"It's one of those games that's easy to get up for," Groce said. "Our guys are always talking about it, even during the offseason – how much they enjoy being a part of one of the game's best rivalries."

Only three Missouri players – Brown, Earnest Ross and Tony Criswell – have experience in the series. Brown, an Oregon transfer, made his first start for the Tigers in last year's 82-73 victory, and led the way with 18 points and seven rebounds.

"I just didn't know what to expect until I got out there," Brown said. "But I enjoyed it."

It's a very big game for sophomore forward Ryan Rosburg, who is from suburban St. Louis and has plenty of experience as a spectator.

"I've been going to this game since I can remember," Rosburg said. "I always asked for Christmas for tickets to the Braggin' Rights game. Just the atmosphere, it's really cool to go home."

Illinois has a local connection, too. Freshman forward Malcolm Hill played at Belleville (Ill.) East High and was the St. Louis Post-Dispatch player of the year last season.

"We've talked about it being a heavyweight boxing match," Groce said. "That's what it is. He knows that."

Missouri, with one returning starter, and Kansas, with none, are the only schools in the nation in the top 25 with one or fewer starters back from last season. The Tigers have never won five in a row in the series, and the current streak follows a run of nine straight wins by Illinois.

"They're going to hear enough from the guys who have played in it about what they expect," Haith said. "I just think for us it's just about sheer preparation."

The Tigers' top producers are newcomers, with junior college transfer Jordan Clarkson leading in scoring and assists, and freshman Johnathan Williams III the leading rebounder with eight per game. Clarkson is averaging 19.4 points, just ahead of Brown at 19.0, and had a run of five straight games with 20 or more points before getting held to 12 points in a victory over Western Michigan on Sunday.

Missouri has a 25-game winning streak at home, best in the nation, but the next two games are on the road. It's the lone unbeaten school in the SEC.

Illinois also has a strong perimeter, with the three top scorers all guards.

Rayvonte Rice, who averages 17.7 points and 5.5 rebounds, was coached for two seasons at Drake by Mark Phelps, now a Missouri assistant. Tracy Abrams averages 11.5 points, four rebounds and three assists, and Joseph Bertrand averages 10.7 points and 5.3 rebounds.

Groce wants better play on the other end of the floor.

"I'm a little concerned about the defense," he said. "Our defense has not been good enough late in the game. We've not gotten enough stops."

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