ST. LOUIS -- The annual Braggin' Rights game today between Illinois and Missouri has more than enough cachet even when the teams are not at the top of their games.
That Missouri (6-0) is No. 11 and Illinois (7-0) just one spot behind only adds to the atmosphere of what always is the city's biggest event and toughest ticket of the year. The last time both teams came in unbeaten was 1989, when both were in the top five and Illinois won 101-93.
"It's a great rivalry," Illinois coach Bill Self said. "You want to say you approach it like every game, but this isn't every game."
It doesn't take players long to come to that realization. Illinois senior guard Sean Harrington said he's been told by everybody in Champaign, Ill., that it's the biggest game of the season.
"It's something that's really tough to experience until you're actually there," Harrington said. "Everybody's going to have a lot of excitement, nerves, energy, to start the game. We've come out a couple of times maybe a little too excited."
Missouri's Quin Snyder equates it to a bowl game in midseason. It's traditionally played just before Christmas, often a lull in the schedule that only serves to increase the attention. Whoever loses has plenty of time to replay the game in their minds, with Missouri's game a week away against Valparaiso and Illinois' returning to action Dec. 28 at Memphis.
Last year, both teams were in the Top 10, and Illinois, ranked ninth at the time, won 72-61 over a Missouri team ranked eighth.
"It kind of sits in your mouth," Snyder said. "I know the last two Christmases for me, I was watching the Illinois tape. I was upset that we lost.
"I do think it's a really big game, and I think both teams have approached it that way."
Both teams are coming off easy victories last Saturday, with Missouri handling Memphis 93-78 and Illinois dispatching Temple 70-54. Neither team has had many early tests, with Illinois winning by an average of 25 points and Missouri by 22.
Illinois is led by the 1-2 inside-outside punch of 6-10 Brian Cook and freshman point guard Dee Brown, while Missouri has a balanced lineup led by swingman Rickey Paulding and beefy 6-9 center Arthur Johnson.
Self is more wary of Missouri this year minus departed scorers Kareem Rush and Clarence Gilbert, who produced 55 percent of the offense.
"I think they're better," Self said. "The reason I think they're better is because they're more balanced. Last year with Gilbert and Rush, you put all your emphasis on them and this year they've got such good balance."
Johnson is poised to break the school career blocked shots record set by Steve Stipanovich, who had 149 from 1980-83. Johnson is only two away, plus he has four double doubles the past five games.
"The record won't affect the game, but he's going to do it in 2 1/2 years," Self said. "We've got to be conscious of that. But if we're worried about guys blocking our shot, we'll play soft inside."
The game also is a homecoming for freshman guard Jimmy McKinney, who played at St. Louis' Vashon High School. McKinney, among the first players off the bench, had 13 points in 32 minutes against Memphis.
"It's special, just going back home," he said. "But basically it's just another game. This is not about Missouri-Illinois, it's about winning."
Cook is averaging 20.6 points and seven rebounds, and had 25 points against Temple. Brown, among three freshman who'll start for Illinois, is averaging 13.6 points.
Illinois is a team that has had a tendency to score points in bunches.
"We've been a team that may play 20 good minutes, may play 15 average-at-best minutes, but play five great minutes that's been the difference in the game," Self said.
Self doesn't want to put too much emphasis on Missouri. Instead, it's a good early-season barometer.
"I think our guys' mindset is their goals and aspirations are pretty high to begin with," Self said. "One big win might enhance that a little bit, but I don't know if it will enhance it greatly."