Missouri men’s basketball has had an up-and-down start to the season as they head into their anticipated Braggin’ Rights game with Illinois Saturday (noon on SEC Network), the annual holiday season barometer of how the Tigers are looking.

The annual neutral-site game with the Illini at Enterprise Center in St. Louis features a lively atmosphere and a decent opponent. It’s a good test, and a good indicator game as the challenge of SEC conference plays draws closer. 

Missouri (6-4) has given fans plenty of frustration so far, but also a few signs of hope. Missouri’s home nonconference schedule is devoid of any power-conference teams or highly regarded opponents, which is unfortunate for the fans. The Tigers have mostly taken care of business in those games, including a 64-48 win over Southern Illinois (4-7) on Sunday, with one egregious exception. On Dec. 3, Missouri lost 68-60 at home to Charleston Southern. Ken Pomeroy has a ranking system for all 353 Division I college basketball teams, and he has since 2002. Charleston Southern was ranked 313th in the country when they came to Columbia and beat the Tigers. It was a dreadful game, and by KenPom rankings it was the worst loss Missouri has had. Not even during the dark Kim Anderson years did the Tigers lose to a team outside the top 300. 

It was a hideous loss, but Missouri followed that debacle with a very nice 64-54 win at Temple on Dec. 7. Up to that point, Missouri had lost every time they played a team you’ve heard of, but this was a gritty win and a source of real hope for fans, especially when Missouri backed it up with an easy win over Southern Illinois on a snowy Sunday in Columbia. Mark Smith scored 23 points, making 7 of 9 three-pointers. 

Now comes the Braggin’ Rights game, an annual great scene, as both fanbases fill half the arena (most years) and provide an electric atmosphere as the two teams go on runs. It just has a frenetic, entertaining feel. Even if this isn’t a year-round type of rivalry, this is a big game for both teams, and a fun one for everyone involved.

Missouri won last year, ending a five-year streak for Illinois. It’s been a series of streaks, with no team winning just one game in a row since 1981. Illinois leads the Braggin’ Rights portion of the rivalry, an annual December game in St. Louis, 25-13, and the overall series 32-17.

Illinois (8-3) is off to a good start, notching a big home win over Michigan on Dec. 7, and losing narrowly at a good Maryland team on Dec. 7. The Illini have a 7-foot freshman, Kofi Cockburn, who will be tough to handle inside. They also have a savvy senior guard in Andres Feliz. Sophomore Ayo Dosunmu also provides some scoring. This will be a tough test for Missouri’s defense. Like a lot of Braggin’ Rights games, this one feels like about a tossup game, which means it should be great.

By Benjamin Herrold