CHAMPAIGN – Until recent years, the annual Braggin’ Rights basketball brawl between Illinois and Missouri was a rivalry game that actually lived up to the hype.
Enthusiastic pre-Christmas crowds filled either the St. Louis Arena or the Scottrade Center in St. Louis. Since the matchup was launched in 1980, 26 times at least one of the teams was ranked among the national Top 25. Nine times both teams have been nationally ranked.
The game not only had local and regional sizzle, it moved the national college basketball needle.
It was a tough ticket and for good reason.
But as the teams skidded out of national relevance, attendance in recent years plummeted. Last December, it was alarming to see 10,000 empty seats. Something dramatic had to be done and something dramatic was when each school changed head coaches and pressed the reset button.
Tonight in the Scottrade Center, the joint is expected to be rocking again as new-look programs square off in the 37th version of a matchup that has held Illini coach Brad Underwood’s attention for much, much longer than his nine months on the job.
“I coach basketball to be a part of games like this,” Underwood said this week. “I hope to recruit athletes who want to be a part of this. I love rivalry games. They are exciting for the fans and this is obviously one with tremendous history and passion that has had great coaches, great players and great finishes.”
Underwood said he wasn’t on the job long before he was peppered with Braggin’ Rights reminders.
“It’s the one thing I’ve heard about since I took the job,” he said. “I’ve witnessed it from afar. I don’t think Illinois fans haves a real love affair for Missouri fans. That’s one thing I’ve been told. I don’t come at it from that side. I come at it from the basketball side.”
Underwood got a different insight into the rivalry as soon as he was hired. He immediately had to battle to retain East St. Louis big man Jeremiah Tilmon, who had signed his letter of intent to play at Illinois but who was being wooed to jump ship and join first-year coach Cuonzo Martin’s new group at Missouri.
In the end, Tilmon was given his release and he now starts for the Tigers. While that may fuel the fire for Illini fans tonight, it’s simply a basketball issue for Underwood.
“He’s a pro,” Underwood said while assessing what he has observed from Tilmon through 12 games. “That’s what I’ve seen. He’s an elite runner, tremendous length, great hands. He catches everything. In the NBA, you have to do stuff that is elite to make it at that level and he does that. And he’s going to be an elite shot-blocker.
“I wish nothing but the best for Jeremiah. That’s a young man trying to reach and achieve his dreams and goals. If (transferring) was unique to us…but it’s not. It’s a common thing that happens all the time in basketball. Kids feel more comfortable in certain situations when change happens.
“Winning is really, really hard and if he is not both feet in committed to helping Illinois win, he needs to go someplace else. I haven’t lost sleep over it.”
Michael Finke, Illinois’ tallest player at 6-foot-10, will have some responsibility guarding the 6-10 Tilmon.
“He signed and we thought he was coming here,” Finke said. “But with the new coaching change, he made the best decision he thought for him.
“He’s a really good athlete who can finish around the rim. He’s a good defender who can block shots. He was a really good high school player who is showing himself at the college level. We’ll definitely try to take it to him.”
But it’s not just Tilmon and 6-11 Jontay Porter that push the Tigers. Guard play has been strong and forward Jordan Barnett has been a hot commodity.
“Their fifth-year transfer (Kassius Robertson from Canisius) has been tremendous,” Underwood said. “They shoot a lot of 3s but you’d better account for them on the glass, which is very typical for a Cuonzo team.”
Underwood knows Missouri got a sneak peak Tuesday into Illinois’ unusual defensive style when it played Stephen F. Austin. That’s the school Underwood coached for three seasons while compiling an 89-14 record and despite the coaching change there, Stephen F. Austin is still using Underwood’s defense.
Missouri shot nearly 56 percent Wednesday and won 82-81, but turned the ball over 21 times in the process.