A Christmas Wish: I Want the Mizzou-Illinois Braggin’ Rights Game to Matter Again

The annual Missouri vs. Illinois basketball game tips off tonight (Wednesday) at Scottrade Center … and I’m not feeling it. I just can’t get into it. It’s still a fine social night out, with fans of both schools merrily filing into the arena to brighten their holiday spirit a few days before Christmas. The ambiance is special.

101ESPN’s Bernie Miklasz

But the basketball? Bah, humbug.

Once upon a time, this game used to be a main event.

Now it’s fading into a non-event.

And if you think I’m being a scrooge … well, evidently I’m not alone.

Only 14,456 fans showed up for last year’s game, a sad drop from the usual 21,000-plus that packed the arena when this rivalry had quality, spark, and charisma.

KTVI-TV reported that only 12,000 tickets had been sold as of Tuesday for tonight’s clash.

Plenty of cheap tickets are available. And that’s an unfortunate change in demand. This used to be one of the toughest tickets in town to get your hands on.

An evening that used to rate as the most wonderful night on the St. Louis sports schedule (non-baseball) is just another date on the calendar now. Where have you gone, Lou Henson and Norm Stewart?

Hell, at this point I’d take Bill Self vs. Quin Snyder, or Bruce Weber vs. Mike Anderson.

I have so many warm memories of covering or attending this game through the years.

Those fond, sentimental memories make the current state of affairs even more depressing.

Illinois coach John Groce is in his fifth season. His Illini are 86-64 during his time in Champaign-Urbana and have made it to one NCAA Tournament. Groce is a strong recruiter and a likable personality, and his team is off to a solid 9-3 start this season. But the bottom-line record is only OK, at best.

Groce, however, is John Wooden compared to Mizzou coach Kim Anderson.

Taking that shot at Anderson pains me, but I had to do it. I have so much respect for Anderson. I was happy when he got his opportunity to coach his alma mater. I still hope — foolishly — that Coach can turn things around. But a 24-49 coaching record at Mizzou doesn’t translate into compliments.

I would be delighted to identify areas of the MU hoops program that are worthy of praise, but I can’t come up with much. All right, here’s one: the Tigers rank 65th among the 351 teams listed at KenPom.com in defensive efficiency. That’s decent.

That’s the best I can do for now. Mizzou’s  Saturday home loss to Eastern Illinois didn’t exactly raise the optimism level.

Since the start of the 2014-15 season, Anderson’s first campaign, here’s how the Tigers rank among the 75 major-conference teams from the Big Ten, SEC, ACC, Big 12, and Pac 12:

Winning percentage:  75th, (.329)

Points per game: 73rd,  (65.3)

Overall shooting percentage: 74th,  (.411)

3-point shooting percentage:  74th,  (.313)

2-point shooting percentage:  72nd,  (.462)

Effective field goal percentage:  74th,  (.464)

Assist-turnover ratio: 68th,  (0.91)

Rebounding differential:  65th

Points-Assists-Rebounds per game: 73rd

Points differential: 72nd

Blocked shots differential:  73rd

This is double trouble. It’s one thing to lose, lose, and lose. That’s terrible enough. But Mizzou is  extremely boring while losing, losing, losing. Their games have no real entertainment value. The basketball is cringeworthy … not praiseworthy. In my biggest understatement of 2016, let me say this: none of this bodes well for Kim Anderson.

This will be the 47th Braggin’ Rights game.

Neither team is ranked in the Top 25. I wouldn’t say that’s unusual, but it’s disappointing.

In the previous 46 contests, at least one participant came in ranked 17 times.

And both sides were ranked going into the game nine times.

That was the case pretty recently, with both Illinois and Mizzou coming into the Braggin’ Rights game with ranked-team stature for three consecutive years, 2010-2012. But if you look at these programs now, it’s discouraging to reflect on the days when three of these games featured two Top 10 teams: 1988 (Illini No. 5, Tigers No. 10) … 1989 (Illini No. 5, Tigers No. 4) … and 2001 (Illini No. 9, Tigers No. 8).

Here’s an early request:

All I want for Christmas — in 2017 — is for this Mizzou vs. Illinois game to matter again.

To rock the house again.

To be a joy — instead of a joy kill — again.

To be a Christmas present instead of two lumps of coal dumped on the hardwood.

Thanks for reading …


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