Missouri, Illinois wage Top 10 clash

Saturday, December 22, 2001

ST. LOUIS -- Fans circle the date of the annual Illinois-Missouri game on their calendars a year in advance, and two Top 10 rankings only add spice to the sold-out, neutral-site matchup set for tonight.

Missouri coach Quin Snyder, formerly an assistant at Duke, said this game is better than Duke-North Carolina.

"I think it's the best non-conference rivalry in college basketball," Snyder said. "One of the best ways to tell about a rivalry is how hard it is to get a ticket and this may be the toughest ticket."

Illinois' Bill Self also raves about the rivalry. The teams have played every year but one in St. Louis since 1980, with Illinois leading the series 12-9.

The Illini (9-2) won last year's game 86-81 in overtime, but Missouri (9-1) has won three of the last four overall.

"I think the time of year, and everything about this game, is really good," Self said. "The one-shot deal where fans have the chance to pound their chests for an entire year makes this one of the very best."

Missouri's first loss of the season, a humbling 18-point setback to Iowa at home a week ago, shouldn't knock too much of the luster off the game. The Tigers, at No. 8, still are ranked ahead of No. 9 Illinois, which also has had its stumbles in the early going.

Self doesn't believe Iowa exposed any great weakness in Missouri, which couldn't overcome poor games from Kareem Rush and Clarence Gilbert. Rush, the Big 12 player of the year, was 4-for-18 against Iowa and has yet to match last season's performance level.

"You can play great defense, and Rush and Gilbert can still make shots," Self said. "That was a particular game where Rush and Gilbert just missed shots."

Illinois has been a bit of an early-season disappointment with losses to Arizona and Maryland, both also ranked. It's one of the final tuneups before the Big Ten season for Illinois and before the Big 12 season for Missouri.

Both schools have one game left before starting their conference seasons.

"It's a game you can draw a lot of confidence from to get you going for conference play," Self said. "We haven't played great yet, and Missouri is coming off a game in which they probably feel like they didn't play their best.

"It is a statement game, I guess it could be labeled that."

Illinois is at less than full strength considering injuries to Lucas Johnson (knee), Frank Williams (hand), Damir Krupalija (foot) and Robert Archibald (back), plus Sean Harrington has had a flu bout. Johnson isn't expected back until January or February, but the rest are expected to play.

"When the adrenaline gets flowing, there will be a lot of these nagging-type things that guys will forget about," Self said. "We're not going to have an excuse going in and we're not going to have an excuse afterward."

Snyder felt Missouri was overrated at No. 2, considering Gilbert is the lone senior and three sophomores are starting. The Tigers rose through the rankings thanks to stumbles by other teams, and to their credit they beat Alabama and Iowa in the Guardians Classic.

"Any time you get tons of external feedback that is not accurate, it can't be helpful," Snyder said. "It's like your buddies back home telling you that you should be playing more when they don't see you getting your tail kicked in practice every day, or dad wanting the best for his kid.

"Being No. 2 wasn't grounded, it was fabrication. We need to earn it."

Heading into Saturday's game, Snyder believes Illinois is better than Missouri.

"I think they're a Final Four team now, and I don't know that two losses are indicative of any (unfulfilled) expectations," Snyder said. "It is indicative of them playing an unbelievable schedule."

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