Illinois already has plenty to brag on

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

National runner-up Illinois comes into tonight's annual "Braggin' Rights" game against Missouri with an 11-0 record.

ST. LOUIS -- Recruiting in St. Louis last week, Bruce Weber paused to reflect on Illinois' Final Four appearance just a few months earlier. It was the pinnacle for one of the nation's storied programs.

"You see the Arch and the dome and it's great memories, there's no doubt," Illinois' coach said. "I'll always remember looking out and seeing orange everywhere.

"It was just an amazing thing."

Tonight, when the sixth-ranked Fighting Illini play their first game in town since their runner-up finish in the NCAA tournament, there'll be a sea of orange serving as backdrop once again. But there's also likely to be an equal showing of black and old gold for the annual "Braggin' Rights" game against Missouri.

"I'm not sure there's another game like this in the country," Weber said. "It's basically split down the middle and if you're playing well your fans are cheering, and if they're playing well their fans are cheering.

"It pretty much goes back and forth."

Illinois (11-0) is a double-digit favorite to win its sixth straight game in the series, played just across downtown from the scene of its NCAA appearance. He expects the raucous, festive atmosphere, the neutral site and the border conflict factor to bring out the best in both his team and Missouri (4-3).

In some early-season games, Weber says he has to manufacture excitement for his players. Not this one. After all, Illinois was No. 1 last season and needed a surge in the closing minutes to win by six points.

"I hope I don't have to motivate them," he said. "If I need to do that, we're going to be in trouble."

The setting makes the game somewhat unpredictable, even if Missouri has already endured a stunning home-opening loss to Sam Houston State, a one-point win over lightly regarded Texas A&M-Corpus Christi also at home, and a road loss at Davidson.

Coach Quin Snyder sees the Illinois game as a shot to erase those disappointments.

"This game is always big and it has the potential to be a momentum builder that can help you turn the corner," Snyder said. "This is an opportunity for us to kind of climb back into it, so to speak."

Still, he knows the task appears more daunting than usual.

"Miracles have happened," Snyder said. "Whatever kind of miracle it is, if we have to bring in a prophet or something to address our team, we'll do it."

The Tigers' success likely hinges on the success of guard Thomas Gardner, who leads the Big 12 with a 22-point average and has led the team in scoring all but one game.

"He's shooting 50 percent from 3-point range and he's got more 3-point attempts than some of our guys have field goal attempts," Weber said. "He's putting it up, but at the same time he's making shots.

"You can't ask for better than that."

Illinois counters with the inside-outside combination of guard Dee Brown and center James Augustine, the holdovers from the NCAA runner-up team. Weber said Brown has embraced the additional responsibility of being the point guard this season.

"Dee knows how to win like nobody in college basketball," Snyder said. "I think he makes them go, and I think they really feed off him."

Illinois also could get forward Brian Randle back from a sprained ankle that sidelined him for Sunday's victory over Coppin State.

Missouri knows it'll have to play at its best just to have a shot.

"Our defense is the biggest thing, keeping them off the boards and eliminating transition," Gardner said. "That was something that was a positive for them last year, really getting out and running."

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