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MU once again has nothing to brag about
ST. LOUIS -- Once again, Missouri got a wakeup call in the Braggin' Rights game.
Last year the Tigers were 9-1 before getting taken apart by Illinois in the annual border battle, which combined with an earlier loss to Iowa led to a tailspin that lasted about a month. This year they were 6-0 and ranked 11th heading into their first big game of the season, then hit the floor with a thud again in an 85-70 loss Saturday night.
"We kind of split apart a little bit," swing man Rickey Paulding said. "We'll definitely learn from this game. There's nothing we can't fix."
A bad Christmas
Now they have a chance to make a more appropriate response. The Tigers return to action Dec. 30 at home against Valparaiso after what coach Quin Snyder anticipated would be a "crummy" Christmas.
"We've just got to be tougher," center Arthur Johnson said. "If we go out and play like we did tonight, we might as well chalk it up. But as long as we go out there and put forth an effort, we can play with anybody."
Coach Quin Snyder believed the team learned a valuable lesson last season when the Tigers rose to No. 2 and then quickly tumbled out of the rankings. Missouri righted itself in time for the NCAA tournament and advanced to the Elite Eight.
Players have talked often this season about the fact they weren't impressed with their early success, knowing there's a long way to go.
All of which makes the Tigers' uneven showing against Illinois more perplexing.
Snyder thought Missouri, which is developing an identity after replacing go-to scorers Kareem Rush and Clarence Gilbert, was ready for the intensity of the sold-out Braggin' Rights game. Instead, at times the Tigers appeared overwhelmed.
"I thought we were a step slow to the ball," Snyder said. "That's the part of this game that doesn't sit well. They were more active on loose balls, something we pride ourselves on."
Point guard Ricky Clemons, who at times tried too hard to match Illinois freshman sensation Dee Brown, launching some ill-advised shots, said it wasn't a case of Missouri being slower.
"We've played some pretty quick teams," Clemons said. "I just think they were disciplined and tougher than we were."
Missouri also struggled to adjust when Illinois decided to double-team Johnson. The 6-9 center, who had four double doubles in his previous five games, missed much of the first half in foul trouble and ended up with season lows of eight points and three rebounds.
Snyder waited in vain for somebody else to exploit the opening that should have created. Travon Bryant and Jeffrey Ferguson were a combined 1-for-10 with eight rebounds.
Overall, Missouri was outrebounded 42-32 as Illinois dominated inside.
"When people are going to double him up, those guys are going to get opportunities," Snyder said. "They're going to have to finish."
Snyder also said Johnson will have to adjust to increased attention.
"A.J. is learning how to be the go-to guy," Snyder said. "He's not used to sitting on the bench, and I don't think he handled that well.
"He came back in the second half and was really pressing."