Illinois Basketball: Interior Woes Against Missouri Expose an Illini Flaw

Ryan CuriFeatured ColumnistDecember 23, 2012

ST. LOUIS, MO - DECEMBER 22: Joseph Bertrand #2 of the Illinois Fighting Illini dunks the ball against the Missouri Tigers as Nnanna Egwu #32 also of the Illinois Fighting Illini watches during the Bud Light Braggin' Rights game at the Scottrade Center on December 22, 2012 in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Down by six at halftime, Illinois found themselves with a lead during the under-four-minutes timeout late in the second half. However, Missouri finished the game on a run of their own and won the annual rivalry game for the fourth straight season by a final score of 82-73.

Illinois struggled shooting, both from the field and behind the arc, although they knocked down 15 of 19 free-throw tosses. Missouri also struggled from the field and deep, but knocked down all but five of their 24 free throws. 

The biggest difference in the game, the one that may have cost the Fighting Illini their first loss of the 2012-13 campaign, was the fact they were outrebounded 51-29 to the Tigers. Illinois's best players are their guards, and although their frontcourt players scored more than their averages on Saturday, they were outmuscled by a Missouri frontcourt that was lacking a year ago aside from Ricardo Ratliffe.

Lawrence Bowers was the game's top player, scoring 23 points and grabbing 10 rebounds. Alex Oriakhi also had a double-double with a 13-point, 14-rebound effort. Transfers Jabari Brown, Earnest Ross and Tony Criswell brought in seven, six and five rebounds, respectively.

While the Illini were able to limit Phil "Flip" Pressey to 3-for-19 shooting on the evening, Pressey nearly compiled a triple-double of 12 points, seven rebounds and 11 assists. As usual, Pressey was able to get into the lane and find his open Tiger teammates, putting them in easy scoring positions.

Of the five players on Missouri's roster that played at least 28 minutes on Saturday, none registered more than two fouls. This is an indicator that the Illini frontcourt players were not able to draw fouls and were outmatched by tougher and more experienced veterans.

Bowers and Oriakhi combined for 12 of Missouri's 20 offensive rebounds, an area of the game that the Illini desperately need to improve upon within the rugged Big Ten. Brandon Paul did grab eight rebounds for Illinois from his guard position, although he struggled shooting the ball.

Despite the Illini getting beat badly on the boards, both starting big men scored in double figures for John Groce's squad. Tyler Griffey nailed four three-pointers en route to 14 points against his home state's team.

Sophomore center Nnanna Egwu nearly had a double-double, as he scored 12 points and brought in nine rebounds. Transfer forward Sam McLaurin didn't have a big night in his first and only Bud Light Braggin' Rights battle, as he was held scoreless and grabbed two rebounds in 14 minutes of play.

Prior to Saturday's game, I said that I wouldn't judge the Illini too harshly based on Saturday's effort. And while there are still plenty of areas to improve, including the interior as stated here, I believe that John Groce has made this team a contender. Losing to the 12th-ranked team in the nation is nothing to hang your head over, but U of I must get back to business this coming Saturday against Auburn at the United Center because it won't get any easier from here.