Illini Basketball Preview - Illini vs Missouri

Connor Cagley, IlliniGuys Basketball Writer

December 22, 2021

Alfonso Plummer courtesy Joe Clark, IlliniGuys.

The annual Braggin' Rights game is back - and the Illini are looking to avenge their 81-78 loss to the Tigers last year. Unlike last year when the Illini came in ranked #6, neither team is ranked this season. The Illini (8-3) lead the overall series 32-19 and the Braggin' Rights games 25-15 but Missouri (6-5) comes into this game with a 3-game Braggin' Rights winning streak and looking to tie their longest winning streak at 4. Missouri has done this twice, from 1994-1994 and 2009-2012.

Looking at the individual records for this game, there is one that is clearly at risk of being shattered this year. Kofi Cockburn has been a double-double machine again this season. He comes into the game with four double-doubles in a row and six in his eight games this year. This means the Illini record of 13 rebounds in this game held by Mike Davis, Mike Tisdale (twice), and Meyers Leonard may be at risk tonight. Even Doug Smith's Missouri high of 15 rebounds isn't out of Kofi's reach.

For the Illini, Alfonso Plummer comes into this game with an impressive 33-33 streak at the free throw line - for the second longest streak in Illini history. He is averaging 23.0 points over the last seven games shooting 47.9% from the three. To make life rougher on the Tigers, Plummer isn't the only Illini player on a hot streak. Trent Frazier is averaging 18.0 points over the last three games and is hitting 55% from the three. It doesn't stop there, as Jacob Grandison is averaging 17.3 points over the last four games shooting 52.2% from the field. That is a hot trio and we noted that Kofi has a streak of four double-double games on the line as well.

Brad Underwood is 1-3 against Missouri and one suspects that he will get the best out of his squad tonight to end the three-year skid.

Two Questions 

Question #1 - Can Illinois avoid a fourth straight loss to Missouri?

Kofi Cockburn courtesy Joe Clark, IlliniGuys.

So far into the season, Illinois has looked like the better of the two teams going into this “bragging rights” matchup. That was the case coming into their last two matchups against Missouri. Unfortunately for Illinois, the better team did not prevail in those games. Illinois needs to come prepared because Missouri takes this rivalry very seriously. One could argue it’s been their Super Bowl since Cuonzo Martin arrived.

This Missouri team has struggled after losing former Illinois commit Jeremiah Tilmon and former Illini player Mark Smith, as well as Dru Smith and Xavier Pinson. Missouri still has another former Illinois commit in Javon Pickett who has struggled after moving up into a lead role and being a focal point. After shooting 36% from the three last year this season he’s fallen to 21%. That said, past experience has shown that all averages fall to the wayside when he’s up against Illinois. The perceived rejection seems to be personal for him, so he always brings his A-game.

Unlike the last two years, a loss to this Missouri team would be detrimental to Illinois come March when the NCAA tournament committee looks at seeding. Even on a neutral court a loss to a 240 ranked team on net would really sting. Winning this game must be critical to the Illini so much so that they take a page from the Missouri playbook and go all out for the victory tonight.

Question #2 - Will Grandison slide over and start at the power forward position or will Underwood stick with Hawkins?

Jacob Grandison courtesy of Joe Clark

Jacob Grandison is averaging 13.2 points, 4.2 rebounds, and 1.8 assists a game. On the surface these raw averages don’t look that impressive, but at just 24 minutes a game that type of production packs a big punch. Taking a deeper dive and looking at it from an efficiency standpoint – 54% from the field and 50% from the three – makes it clear why he’s Underwood’s go-to guy as a stretch four come crunch time.

Another key aspect of Grandison’s game is adding much needed spacing around Kofi Cockburn from the power forward position. This season, Grandison hasn’t played as many minutes at the four since Cockburn has returned from his suspension, but that may need to change if Coleman Hawkins continues to struggle by getting in foul trouble and making lackadaisical plays resulting in turnovers. It would not be surprising to see Underwood go to more minutes with Grandison at the four and use Hawkins when Cockburn goes to the bench.

Prediction: Illinois 73 – Missouri 60

It’s important for Illinois to prevail in this rivalry matchup to keep their tournament resume intact. This game should be similar to previous cupcake matchups, but there will be an added intensity with a desperate Illinois squad looking to prove themselves. There may be opportunities for Underwood to take advantage of Grandison’s efficiency and scoring prowess to ensure that Illinois walks away with a victory.

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