NEWS

Illinois must win Braggin' Rights to save face -- and perhaps the season

John Supinie

(Editors: Please update radio information and betting line in preview capsule.)

Hours after an overtime loss to Miami (Ohio) on Thursday, Illinois basketball coach Bruce Weber found himself counseling players by phone.

It's not yet Christmas, but even the Illini admitted the season is already at a crisis.

"A couple of them called,'' Weber said. "One was sobbing. One was very distressed. It was emotional. It means something to them.''

When Illinois plays Missouri tonight in the Braggin' Rights game at the Scottrade Center, the Illini carry a seven-game winning streak in the series. Illinois' win over Missouri last season soothed fears about the ability to win a big game.

Moreso this season, the Illini need a win to regroup after a trying four weeks, capped by a 61-58 overtime loss to Miami in Assembly Hall.

"We knew we were in a tough game,'' Weber said. "They're a good team. When you lose to them at home, it's very disappointing. It puts you a major step back if you're looking down the road and fighting for an NCAA bid. Now we have to recover quickly and get a win down in St. Louis.

"You look at the non-conference schedule. There are key games that you want on your resume. Right now, we've played people close. Somehow we have to find a way to gather ourselves. We've got our backs to the wall.''

Illinois lost four games before Christmas for the first time since the 1998-99 season, the last year the Illini didn't reach the NCAA tournament. Illinois hasn't lost five games before Christmas since the 1967-68 season.

Ten years ago, the Illini lost five games before Big Ten Conference play, then bounced back to win a share of the Big Ten Conference title.

When Illinois rallied by scoring the final seven points in regulation to send the game into overtime against Miami, "I was sitting in the huddle thinking the kids are concentrating and you feel pretty good about it,'' Weber said. "I felt at that moment maybe this is where we're going to turn the tide.

"We couldn't get it done. We've got out backs more to the wall. We've got to see if we can find a way to get Missouri, go to Christmas with a decent feeling and maybe get a little bit of a break.''

After winning 112 games in Weber's first four seasons as coach, the Illini are losing momentum.

"We play hard,'' said Illini forward Brian Randle. "We need to find a way to finish. We're not going to hang our head. We have a quick turnaround. We have to get that one.''

For the second straight season, the Braggin' Rights game doesn't have a top 25 team. Missouri won its last three games, including a 73-63 win over Purdue.

After playing deliberate Miami, Illinois faces Missouri's hectic end-to-end pace. The Tigers plan to speed the Illini into mistakes. While forcing 229 turnovers thus far, Missouri defense's creates a turnover once in every six possessions.

The Tigers already have 119 steals, and they could challenge the school record of 302 set last season in the first year under coach Mike Anderson.

Junior forward DeMarre Carroll, a nephew of Anderson and a cousin of assistant coach T.J. Cleveland, is a transfer from Vanderbilt who leads Missouri with 15.2 points and 6.6 rebounds per game.

Senior point guard Stephon Hannah, a junior-college transfer from Chicago, ranks second on Missouri in scoring (14.6 points per game) and first in assists (5.1).

"Carroll is a nice addition to them,'' Weber said. "He's a versatile guy, a slasher. Hannah is a quick little zipper guard. When we watched him in high school and junior college, it was for his passing. He's become a little better scorer at Missouri. He's a versatile guy who can do a lot of things. His quickness on defense is also a factor.''

John Supinie can be reached at Johnsupinie@aol.com. For more coverage, read Illini Talk blog at www.sj-r.com and www.pjstar.com.

PREVIEW CAPSULE

Illinois (6-4) vs. Missouri (8-3) 7:30 p.m., Scottrade Center, St. Louis (ESPN2, Illini Sports Network)

ILLINOIS (6-4)   ppg     rpg

F Brian Randle Sr. 6-8102. 4.5

C Shaun Pruitt Sr. 6-10 13.1 8.4

G Trent Meacham Jr. 6-2 10.6 1.9

G Calvin Brock Jr. 6-5 8.6 4.2

G Chester Frazier Jr. 6-2 5.5 5.8

MISSOURI (8-3)     ppg   rpg

F DeMarre Carroll Jr. 6-8 15.2 6.6

F Leo Lyons Jr. 6-9 12.1 4.9

G Stefhon Hannah Sr. 6-1 14.6 2.3

G Matt Lawrence Jr. 6-7 9.1 2.3

G Jason Horton Sr. 6-2 2.5 1.7

Noteworthy: The Illini haven't lost a Braggin' Rights game since Lon Kruger was coach in the 1999-2000 season. Illinois leads the all-time series 25-12 over Missouri, including an 18-8 advantage in the Braggin' Rights series at St. Louis. After Missouri won seven of nine games from 1991-99, Illinois has won the last seven games. … Illinois coach Bruce Weber is undefeated in the Braggin' Rights, owning a 4-0 record. Weber's lone loss to Mizzou came in the first round of the 2003 NCAA tournament when he was at Southern Illinois.

Key for Illini: Protect the ball, make better decisions and hit some shots. Sounds easy, but it's difficult for Illinois.

Key for Tigers: Make Frazier play a big game. The Illini point guard has gone from bad to worse in the last month.

Key quote: "I think the pressure is on us to continue the streak without (losing to Miami). We have our backs to the wall. I hope they come with a little more intensity and see if we can play at a magic level.'' -- Illinois coach Bruce Weber.

Betting line:

Prediction: Missouri 74, Illinois 68