It’s another year of Braggin’ Rights for the Missouri Tigers. Missouri churned out a 63-56 win over Illinois in a defense-dominated Braggin’ Rights game, the two schools’ annual December matchup in St. Louis.
The victory made it back-to-back wins for Missouri in holiday series, and it was the best win of the season so far for the Tigers.
Missouri (7-4) led 26-23 at the half, and then continued playing generally ruthless defense in a commanding second half on the way to the 63-56 win. Illinois (8-4) brought a very effective offense into the game, but the Tigers held the Illini to a tough shooting day.
Dru Smith led the Tigers with 19 points on just 10 shots, with a steady 9-for-10 performance from the free throw line. Missouri also had a huge game from its bench, with sensational sophomore guard Xavier Pinson scoring 14 and Javon Pickett posting 17 points and 6 rebounds.
This was the ideal for coach Cuonzo Martin and this Tiger team; this is the roadmap for how they can have a successful season. They had balanced scoring and rebounding and played the tight-fisted defense their coach loves and needs.
It would be sweet if they did, but Missouri probably won’t just bury teams in an avalanche of scoring this year. They need to defend, and then avoid too many long dry spells on offense. It isn’t the most gorgeous basketball, but it could work.
The Tigers are giving reasons for optimism as Southeastern Conference play gets closer. After some early struggles, Missouri now has a modest three-game winning streak, which includes nice wins at Temple and against Illinois, with a fairly easy home win over Southern Illinois in the middle. The streak should reach four wins in a row heading into SEC play, as Missouri wraps up nonconference play by hosting Chicago State on Dec. 30 (7 p.m. on SEC Network Plus). Tiger fans can hope Martin has the team hitting its stride.
The Tigers will need to be playing well as SEC games begin, because the Tigers start conference play by facing maybe three of the four best teams in the conference (Kentucky, Tennessee and Florida), followed by back-to-back road games at Mississippi State and Alabama.
The SEC men’s basketball teams had fairly underwhelming results in nonconference play, but there are enough good coaches and players in the SEC that the 18-game conference schedule will be difficult, along with a tough nonconference road game at West Virginia mixed in as part of the Big 12-SEC Challenge.
The win over Illinois was big for the Tigers to keep the idea of an NCAA Tournament appearance in play. It was a much-needed quality nonconference win. Now Tiger fans can hope the Illini navigate the rugged 20-game Big Ten schedule in decent shape so Saturday’s win continues to look good.
After a Christmas week with no games, Missouri should be able to cruise by Chicago State and get ready for the SEC opener at Kentucky.