Republished from the Jefferson City News Tribune
The Missouri men’s basketball team has yet to win a non-conference game against a Power-5 opponent under second-year coach Kim Anderson. Perhaps the Tigers’ best chance came last year against Illinois when Rayvonte Rice hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to beat the Tigers 62-59.
Missouri looks for revenge — and that first signature non-conference win — at 6 p.m. today in the Bud Light Braggin’ Rights game at Scottrade Center.
Missouri (5-5) is trying to snap a two game skid during which the Tigers lost by a combined 50 points to Arizona and North Carolina State.
The Arizona blowout wasn’t entirely unexpected, as Missouri was playing in Tucson, Ariz., and the Wildcats entered the game ranked No. 13 nationally. But the loss to N.C. State was a missed opportunity for the Tigers to prove they had made strides from last year’s nine-win campaign.
“I think we’ve improved,” Anderson said. “I think we’ve had two steps forward, one step back every once in a while.”
The Tigers took a step back against the Wolfpack, who entered the game with a loss to William & Mary on their record and were coming off a close call against High Point. Missouri grabbed an early 19-9 lead, but Cat Barber took over and scored 33 points for N.C. State, which won 73-59.
What’s more, the loss to the Wolfpack was Missouri’s first at home this year. The Tigers have yet to win a game away from the lightly attended confines of Mizzou Arena.
“I think being undefeated is a really big confidence booster for us,” freshman Terrence Phillips said before the N.C. State game. “We always talk about protecting home court. No one comes in here and takes over our floor, so that’s what we try to do every night.”
Though the Tigers had been averaging more than 72 points per game after a 85-78 win against Omaha, Missouri has failed to break the 60-point barrier in its last two games. Missouri, which averaged 65 points per non-conference game last year, currently leads only Alabama in the SEC with 68.8 points per game.
Freshman Kevin Puryear is the only Missouri player averaging double-digit points (12.1) and shooting guard Namon Wright is currently the team’s top rebounder with 4.8 per game.
Illinois, meanwhile, has three players scoring 10 or more points per game: Malcolm Hill with 18.5, Kendrick Nunn with 18.4 and Mike Thorne Jr. with 13.4. Thorne leads the Fighting Illini with 8.4 rebounds as well. Illinois (7-5) is currently riding a four-game winning streak, though the Fighting Illini could use a signature win as well. They have just one win against a top-100 team as ranked by analyst Ken Pomeroy, 98th-ranked Yale.
Illinois also has a winning streak in the Braggin’ Rights contest, having won the last two games by a combined four points. The 2013 win, decided by two Tracy Abrams free throws with 4.6 seconds to go, snapped a four-game win streak by Missouri. Illinois currently leads the series 29-16 and is 13-8 against the Tigers at Scottrade.
Last year’s loss to Illinois was one of two close calls in non-conference games against Power-5 foes for Missouri. The second, an overtime loss 10 days later to Oklahoma State, also came in a neutral site, the Sprint Center in Kansas City.
“Definitely looking back, we were so close against a lot of really good teams,” senior Ryan Rosburg said. “So that’s just what we’re trying to correct this year, those mistakes that we made in some of those games last year, just correct (them) and make sure it doesn’t happen again.”
Rosburg said the Tigers needed to “get over that hump and win against a big-time Power 5 school” before the Southeastern Conference schedule begins.
With just Arkansas-Pine Bluff and Savannah State left ahead of SEC play, today will be Missouri’s last chance to do so.
Note: Missouri hasn’t won a neutral-site game against a Division-I opponent since March 13, 2014, against Texas A&M in the SEC Tournament. Frank Haith was the Tigers’ coach then. … Illinois is led by coach John Groce, who has been with the Fighting Illini since 2012.