Tonight is the big night, my friends. At the Scottrade Center in St. Louis Missouri at 6:00 PM, the Braggin’ Rights Game tips off in front of a split Midwestern crowd. The Illinois Fighting Illini look for a fourth straight win over the MIssouri Tigers in a storied tradition going back four decades. That’s right. The huge trophy resides in the Illinois case in the Scottrade Center.
Just because a non-conference college basketball rivalry doesn’t involve North Carolina, Duke, Kentucky or Kansas, doesn’t mean it’s not worth talking about.
1976 was the first edition of what was then called the “Show-Me Classic,” with Missouri edging the Fighting Illini 76-75 in Columbia. For four years, the series alternated between home games for the two schools until the 1980 edition, which was the first to be played in St. Louis Arena (home of the Blues). St. Louis is roughly equidistant between the two campuses, which both attract numerous students from the St. Louis metro area.
Illinois won the first game in St. Louis 84-62, but was defeated in overtime the next year by a Tigers squad ranked #13 in the AP poll. College Basketball Hall Of Fame inductees Norm Stewart and Lou Henson were the coaches in Columbia and Champaign, but it was Henson’s Illini that prevailed in every game from 1983 to 1990, by which time the crowds were regularly clocked at over 18,000 fans. Stewart finally got the best of Henson’s team again in 1991 to begin a four game winning streak that included an epic 108-107 win in triple overtime after Illinois missed five free throws in the last two minutes of regulation.
Illinois reclaimed the momentum in 1995 and won the next year’s game as well, which also marked the beginning of a streak of games with 22,000+ attendance (I’m not sure if they were all sellouts, but if not, they’re about as close as can be) that lasted until 2007. After suffering losses from 1997 to 99, the Fighting Illini reeled off a streak of 9 straight wins. The Bruce Weber era, however, ended with three straight losses to the Tigers, but Illinois has won the last three.
As I mentioned, it’s usually played in front of a huge split crowd, split right down the middle like the Texas State Fair:
Though the last three games have been decided by a total of nine points, attendance dropped to just over 14,000 last year.
So what happened?
Well, the simple truth is that both programs are on unusually long hiatus from the NCAA tournament and the fans have checked out. Illinois’ final record has gotten progressively worse under John Groce each of the four seasons he’s been in Champaign, and Frank Haith’s departure amidst a storm of NCAA violation investigation left Missouri basketball a smoldering crater that has won just 19 games in the past two years. For the third year in a row, neither team is in the AP Top 25 heading into this game. This is unprecedented in this rivalry; in fact, only the last two years and the ‘96 and ‘97 games featured consecutive unranked matchups. Both teams have been ranked heading into this game nine times, with three being top-10 matchups.
We’re far removed from those days, and though Illinois’ decay was gradual, Missouri’s has been sudden and severe. I was in the band for Illinois at the 2010 and 2011 editions and it was one of the coolest environments I’ve ever experienced at a sports event.
With John Groce attempting to guide an experienced squad to the NCAA tournament to prove he belongs, there are still stakes in this game. The Illini enter 9-3 with a four-game win streak, while Missouri is 5-5 against a more balanced schedule. Kim Anderson’s rebuild of Missouri may be a difficult process that might not happen, but a win against Illinois would go a long way towards instilling some confidence in the fanbase.
The Fighting Illini cannot let that happen.
It might not be what it once was, but it’s still important to plenty of us fans.
SO BEAT MIZZOU!
Sorry. I mean. BEAT MIZnOZ!