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Newcomers aplenty for Missouri, Illinois for annual battle

Missouri's Johnathan Williams III grabs a rebound during Sunday's game with Western Michigan.

Missouri's Johnathan Williams III grabs a rebound during Sunday's game with Western Michigan. Photo by The Associated Press.

The annual Braggin’ Rights basketball game between Missouri and Illinois is often an eye-opening experience for newcomers to the rivalry.

There will be plenty of those on hand — even veteran players — when No. 23 Missouri (10-0) and Illinois (9-2) take the court at 4:30 p.m. today (ESPN2-TV) at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis. Both teams feature just three players each that took part in the game a season ago.

For Missouri, it’s Jabari Brown, Earnest Ross and Tony Criswell. For Illinois, it’s Joseph Bertrand, Tracy Abrams and Nnanna Egwu.

“Getting these guys ready for this game is something that’s important for us in terms of understanding the type of game it is,” Missouri head coach Frank Haith said. “It’s a little different type of game. It’s almost like an NCAA Tournament-type game with the atmosphere. The energy and the passion in the building is unique. I think the guys are looking forward to the opportunity.

“… I don’t know what, in terms of effect, it will have on our guys. You don’t know until you get in the game. There were some guys in that game last year it affected in not a good way. There were some guys it affected in a positive way. Until you get in the environment you really don’t know.”

Missouri enjoys a four-game winning streak in the series after last season’s 82-73 victory. Illinois, however, owns a 27-16 advantage all-time, including a 19-12 edge in games played in St. Louis.

“It’s definitely cool to keep (the streak) going, but I know Illinois had a nice streak before that,” Missouri forward Ryan Rosburg said, referencing the Fighting Illini’s nine-game winning streak from 2000-08. “We just have to treat it like any other game and go in and try to win.”

Easy for Rosburg to say, considering he was on the bench for the game last year and has become familiar with the atmosphere after years of attending as a fan.

“I don’t think the freshmen have any idea (of what to expect),” he said. “Just trying to talk to them about how it’s split down the middle and people are yelling ‘M-I-Z’ and ‘I-L-L’ all game, over and over again. I don’t think you can really prepare for that. I think they’re going to be shocked when they get there.”

The same might be said for Missouri’s leading scorer, Jordan Clarkson (19.4 points per game), who makes his Braggin’ Rights debut today.

“I know it’s going to be loud, a lot of people,” Clarkson said. “I’ve heard it’s a great atmosphere to play in. I like games like that. I think it’s going to be a fun game to play in. I kind of feed off the crowd.”

Added freshman Wes Clark: “They just said to bring your best. This is a top-scale game and this is where the big boys come out.”

Atmosphere aside, the actual on-court product appears to be just as enticing. Just like always.

“I know our guys want to go into this game understanding that it’s important for us to play well because it’s a chance to play a team RPI-wise and strength of schedule-wise and build your resume and help you get into the postseason,” Haith said. “Those are the things I think our guys will look at and me personally will look at.”

While all the new faces might not breed familiarity, there’s at least a modicum of that when it comes to Illinois’ go-to guy. Rayvonte Rice, a transfer from Drake, leads Illinois with 17.7 ppg. Missouri assistant coach Mark Phelps was the head man at Drake for two of those seasons.

“He hasn’t really said a whole lot about him, other than he’s pretty talented,” Haith said when asked if Phelps has offered any inside scouting tips. “He’s an aggressive player. He scores a lot of different ways. He’s a scorer. Similar to some of our guys in that he can deck it and get in the paint, he can do what he wants to do, but he can make a 3 also.”

Abrams (11.5 ppg) and Bertrand (10.7 ppg) round out the double-digit producers for Illinois.

“Two guys that have really been a thorn in our side in Abrams and Bertrand, they’ve played great in the games against us in the two years I’ve been here,” Haith said. “Both are having good years. Bertrand is shooting the ball really well.”

While today’s game marks the first time in four years both teams aren’t ranked for the Braggin’ Rights game, that doesn’t mean the contest loses any luster. Both of the Fighting Illini’s losses have come in true road games — 67-64 at Georgia Tech and 71-64 at No. 15 Oregon.

While Illinois ranks a paltry 217th in the nation in points per game (71.5), the Fighting Illini make up for it on the defensive end. Illinois allows just 60.4 points, good for 13th in the country. Missouri’s 79 points per game ranks 57th in the nation, with a shooting percentage of .497 that ranks 19th.

“This is going to be a really good test for us,” Haith said. “Illinois is a talented ball club. The Braggin’ Rights game is an exciting time of the year. It kind of signifies Christmas time.”

Added Brown: “It’s one of the more fun games I played in last year, so I’m definitely looking forward to it. They’re a good team, so it’s going to make it that much better.

“Every year they’re up there. I feel like that having that win under our belts will go a long way later on.”

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