For the 40th consecutive December, No. 16 Illinois and Missouri meet Thursday night about halfway between their campuses in what has become known as the Braggin’ Rights Classic.

“It’s an exciting rivalry – one that stands out historically in college basketball,” first-year Missouri coach Dennis Gates told 101 ESPN in St. Louis. “Most people talk about the (North) Carolina-Duke (rivalry), but this is a longstanding rivalry between two great institutions and two great basketball traditions.”

For the fourth successive year, No. 16 Illinois enters (8-3) with the superior reputation and power ranking. But when it comes to this rivalry in a sold-out Enterprise Center, the rankings rarely mean anything. And Missouri is unranked, but is 10-1.

In 2019, Missouri claimed a seven-point win over the favored Illini. In 2020, Missouri earned a three-point victory over No. 6 Illinois on the Tigers’ home floor — due to the pandemic, the only one of these last 40 games to be played in someplace other than St. Louis. Last year, the Illini finally snapped a three-game losing streak to the Tigers with an 88-63 blowout.

There’s no way to guess how Thursday’s clash will go.

Since rallying to beat No. 2 Texas in overtime on Dec. 6 at Madison Square Garden, Illinois dropped a 15-point decision at home to Penn State and struggled until the final 10 minutes against Alabama A&M.

The loss to Penn State inspired an angry postgame tirade by Illini coach Brad Underwood, while the win over Alabama A&M led to a lengthy postgame meeting in the locker room among the coaches and players.

Baylor grad transfer Matthew Mayer poured in a game-high 21 points, with 13 of them coming after Alabama A&M pulled within one with 10:54 to play.

“Matt’s a really talented player,” Underwood said. “He can get to places and do things that not very many people can do because he’s very gifted with the ball. He’s 6-foot-9, he can play 1-on-1, he’s a great isolation player. As his conditioning has gotten better and his health has improved, his game’s gotten better.”

Mayer is among the seven players in Illinois’ nine-man rotation who will experience the Braggin’ Rights Classic for the first time. That’s similar to Missouri’s roster in which Gates has meshed mid-major transfers from Missouri State, Milwaukee, Cleveland State, Northern Iowa and Bradley with lone returnee Kobe Brown to form a well-rounded team that has built a nice record with relatively few challenges.

D’Moi Hodge (16.4 points) and Brown (12.9) lead five players averaging double-digit scoring for Mizzou.

The Tigers (10-1) are feeling good after DeAndre Gholston banked home a 40-footer at the buzzer for a 68-66 win over UCF Saturday afternoon.

The Tigers rank fourth nationally in scoring (88.4 points per game) and first in steals (12.7 per game) as they figure to be Illinois’ highest-tempo opponent of the season. And, considering the Illini are committing 15.1 turnovers per game, this should be an area Missouri has an advantage.

“I want to put pressure on offensively and defensively,” Gates said. “Our guys are doing a good job of doing that. I think we’re playing together and playing the right way.”

–Field Level Media