Illinois retains top ranking, will face Mizzou

Tuesday, December 21, 2004

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Top-ranked Illinois is undefeated and flying high while Missouri is an average 6-4, but Illini coach Bruce Weber knows anything can happen in a big rivalry game like the annual "Braggin' Rights" matchup.

The battle with the Tigers comes Wednesday at St. Louis' Savvis Center, and Weber says Missouri will be out to break his team's four-game winning streak in the yearly contest.

"It's a rival game and you've got to understand what that means," Weber said after his team hammered Valparaiso 93-56 on Sunday. "Just walking into that place, the heart starts pounding. It's just a different feeling."

Illinois, which was voted No. 1 in the AP poll for the third straight week Monday, has gone into the past three "Braggin' Rights" games ranked lower than Missouri and has emerged with an upset each time. The roles are reversed this season, and Weber says his players know it.

"I think they understand how important it is for Missouri to get some confidence for themselves and some notoriety with their fans," Weber said. "I think it will be a hard-fought game. They'll raise their level of play and we're going to have to match it."

Illinois' Deron Williams says the Savvis Center atmosphere, with about half the crowd supporting Illinois and half supporting Missouri, makes the game special and on the court "it's anybody's ballgame."

"They've been struggling, but they're still a good team," Williams said of the Tigers. "They've got a great coach, they've got good players. They're capable of beating us."

Looking at the records, some might beg to differ with Williams. Every one of Illinois' 10 wins has been by at least 12 points, while Missouri already has lost two home games and had to overcome a 17-point deficit at home to beat Indiana 56-53 on Sunday.

"As a fan, it would be human nature to say, 'Man, this is going to be real tough (for Missouri),"' Weber said. "But I've seen teams, I've been part of teams where you're a major underdog and you come up with a different level of performance."

The game is now in its 24th year and has become a staple among college basketball rivalries. The Savvis Center sells out early, leaving fans of both teams clamoring for any ticket they can find.

"I have people asking me all the time for tickets," Weber said Monday. "I had three people ask me this morning."

The two universities and the Savvis Center announced Monday they have agreed to continue the series through 2012, adding six years to the current contract.

"I hope we keep winning, but even if you lose it's still a great game -- exciting and good for your program," Weber said.

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