Logan Ball, 23 Sports

Monday, December 16 –

The annual Braggin’ Rights game is back in St. Louis for game number 36 of the storied rivalry between the Missouri Tigers and the Illinois Fighting Illini. The game was first played in 1980.

While the annual duel is always a great competition, the 2016 game should go down as a turning point for both programs, who have struggled in recent years.

The yearly matchup had its most recent heyday in the early 2010’s, as both programs were ranked within the top 25 nationally, but the past couple years have not been nearly as illustrious.

The last time both teams finished with 20-plus wins was the 2013-2014 season, and both teams have been in decline since.

Mizzou faced self-imposed sanctions in 2014, losing coach Frank Haith and the Tigers’ winning ways, as the team had just 19 victories in the next two seasons.

The Illini had their own issues that season, losing several key players to injury as well as featuring a young roster that caused the team to lose the winning edge they had possessed.

Since then, both teams have been less than exciting, winning a combined 20 conference games in two seasons.

But both programs are in the rebuilding process and there have been signs of optimism for a better Braggin’ Rights game in the near future.

The Tigers (5-5) have struggled of late, losing their last two games to No. 20 Arizona and Eastern Illinois (both teams with at least seven wins). But the signs of life are there as the young Tigers feature 13 underclassmen on the 16-man roster.

Freshman Frankie Hughes has stepped up big for the Tigers, averaging a team-leading 12.7 points as well as 3.1 rebounds and 1.3 assists in 26.3 minutes per game.

Hughes, a three-star prospect out of Cleveland, Ohio, has connected well from 3-point land and his streaky scoring patterns have provided the Tigers with some much-needed energy.

Last year’s freshman sensations, however, have taken more of a backseat after showing plenty of potential last season. Guard Terrance Phillips’ numbers have stagnated from last season, averaging 1.3 fewer points per game and 1.1 more assists per game with a year of experience under his belt.

Phillips, like many of his teammates, has been atrocious from the field, shooting just 30.9 percent.

Big man Kevin Puryear has had a similar season, averaging 0.4 points per game more this season while shooting three percent worse from the field.

To Puryear’s credit, his rebounding has improved significantly in the absence of last year’s leading shot grabber (Namon Wright had 5.2 rebounds per game) and most of that can be attributed to the work he put in during the offseason.

While it is evident Mizzou has put in the work, the numbers still are not there for Head Coach Kim Anderson’s squad. The Tigers rank 320th nationally in field goal percentage (40.8), a weakness Anderson has made very clear.

“I’ve coached and I’ve played I don’t know how many basketball games, I’m not sure I’ve seen something like I just saw. As far as missing so many shots at the basket,” Anderson said after the Missouri loss to North Carolina Central. It has not gotten much better since that crippling loss.

In their latest match against the Eastern Illinois Panthers, the Tigers couldn’t break out of their slump. Shooting a modest 41.1 percent from the field and a season-low 16.7 percent from behind the arc, the Tigers will need to sink shots at a much better rate if they have any intention of ending the three-year winning streak held by the Illini.

Head Coach John Groce’s team has shot much more efficiently this season, ranked 56th in the nation at 47.8 percent.

The issue for the Fighting Illini (9-3) is their lack of a presence down low.

Ranked 127th in the nation in rebounds per game (37.6), the Illini have not had much of a commanding authority in the paint.

The typical front court starters have been sophomore Leron Black and senior Mike Thorne Jr., yet there has been a lot of variation come game time as senior Maverick Morgan and sophomore Michael Finke have received more than their fair share of playing time.

Groce and his staff have tried to instill a sense of physicality into his team with a non-conference schedule featuring some tough opponents such as No. 12 West Virginia and No. 23 Florida State.

While both games ended up as losses for Illinois, there were plenty of positive twists to take away, especially against FSU.

Illinois competed well in the 72-61 loss to the Seminoles and a deeper look at the numbers helps reveal the true win for Illinois.

In the three key statistics of points per game, rebounds and shooting percentage, the underdog Illini were able to keep Florida State underneath their season averages quite convincingly.

The Seminoles were held to 72 points while averaging 89.6, 33 rebounds compared to a typical near 40 boards and shot just 48.1 percent despite averaging 51.8.

NBA prospect Malcolm Hill put up a valiant effort for his squad as well, scoring 18 points and crashing the glass well for eight rebounds.

Hill leads the team in scoring with 18.2 points per game and the Fairview Heights native is ready for the rivalry after dropping 21 points on the Tigers in last year’s game.

While the Tigers struggled in their most recent game against EIU, Illinois’ match with BYU looked to be a step in the right direction.

After building a quick lead on the Cougars in the first half, BYU switched to the zone in the second half to try and slow down the fast-paced offense lead by Finke’s 10 points.

After struggling out of the gate, the Illini were able to make key adjustments on the offense side of the floor and contain a red hot Eric Mika on the other side to hold off Brigham Young 75-73.

A big contribution to the win was the ability to drive to the hoop with ease and dish out the ball for some big shots.

That will be a big challenge for Puryear and senior center Russell Woods to handle, as they haven’t seen that kind of team since Western Kentucky came to Columbia three weeks ago.

The Tigers were able to squeak out a close 59-56 win over the Hilltoppers but the talent of Illinois far surpasses the likes of WKU and Mizzou will need to make some major adjustments if they feel they can take this one from the reigning rivalry champs.

Tipoff for the 36th annual Bud Light Braggin’ Rights Game is set for 6:05 p.m. on Wednesday, Dec. 21.

Both the Tigers and the Fighting Illini have chances to bring their programs back to the prominence they once knew and a win against a heated rival could be enough to spark a basketball revival.

So while there may be more shots missed than made and more turnovers than assists, these squads are overflowing with potential. With the spotlight brighter than it has been all year, who knows what rebirth is currently in the works.