You may not be aware that Missouri and Illinois will once again renew their once infamous “Braggin’ Rights” rivalry for the 34th consecutive year this Wednesday night at 6:00 on ESPN U.
That is likely because this game has not meant anything in quite some time. The Missouri Tigers will once again limp into the game at 5-5, this time, coming off a loss to Eastern Illinois in front of 1,800 fans at Mizzou Arena last Saturday. The sad truth is that there may not be many more than that dressed in black and gold cheering for the Tigers Wednesday night at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis; a city that has witnessed its fair share of momentous Mizzou/Illinois contests over the years.
The “Braggin’ Rights” game used to mean something. It used to mean a lot actually. One of my first memories of Missouri basketball was driving around in my dad’s old Bonneville on a frosty night back in 1993 and listening on the radio as the teams slugged it out in three overtimes which was well past my bedtime. Missouri won that night 108-107 led by late game heroics from little-known freshman like Derek Grimm, Jason Sutherland and Kelly Thames. That game ignited a love for college basketball in me that would never extinguish, but one that has been tested over the past three seasons.
You see, this game used to be one of the more hotly contested non-conference basketball games that you would see in a given year. The atmosphere at the Scottrade Center was always phenomenal- split right down the middle with 11,500 fans on each side. When a team would go on a run or make a bit play, it was like the roof was about to blow off the place it would be so boisterous inside. Tickets would regularly go for three times their face value outside the venue as fans from both schools would flock to the arena just hoping to get a chance to go inside to witness one of college basketball’s best rivalries.
“This is my favorite game of the year. It’s the game players and fans circle on their schedule.” Former Mizzou guard Jarrett Sutton once said about the game back in 2012. “It’s one of the best non-conference games in college basketball.”
I remember Missouri upsetting the 15th ranked Illini during Quin Snyder’s first season as head coach of the Tigers…Then, subsequently, losing the next nine games in the series as Bill self and Bruce Weber’s teams always seemed to have our number in the closing minutes. I’ll never forget what it felt like settling in to watch each of those contests either from the comfort of my Christmas-decorated living room during long winter breaks from school or optimistically making the trek to St. Louis from Kansas City in hopes of witnessing the streak come to an end. Who could forget players like Dee Brown, Deron Williams and Sergion McClain sticking daggers into Mizz fans’ hearts late in close games?
I recall finally giving up on Missouri to ever win a game in this series, and just when I decided to do that, it was the Tigers that reeled off four straight in the series from 2009-2012. Unfortunately, that’s about where Missouri stopped living up to its end of the deal, not only in this rivalry, but as a steady program in the college basketball landscape.
After Frank Haith bolted to Tulsa following the 2014 season, Missouri hired former player and assistant Kim Anderson to right the ship. Two-and-a-half years into his tenure and apathy has pretty much set in for a once proud fan base as Anderson has amassed an unimpressive 24-49 record since his arrival. Women’s basketball and even volleyball have started out-drawing Missouri men’s basketball game which is mind-blowing considering I used to drive to Columbia scouring the town and the area around the Hearnes Center in hopes of someone coughing up a ticket for a somewhat affordable price.
Illinois has not exactly kept up its end of the bargain either. The Illini enter the game 9-3 but unranked and have already suffered a loss to Winthrop. They have only made the NCAA Tournament twice since 2009 and just once under current head coach Jim Groce (back in 2013). If you put a gun to my head right now and told me to name a current Fighting Illini basketball player I would be completely out of luck. Most probably don’t even realize that Illinois has won the last three games in the series as attendance and TV ratings have slowly diminished. 14,000 fans showed up last year which is 8,000 shy of capacity and it might be a modern miracle if there are 14,000 in the building this year.
Make it Great Again?
With coaches from both teams currently sitting on hot seats, there is a chance that this game will once again become important in the future which would be in the best interest of both schools going forward. Otherwise, you will have a generation of kids growing up thinking that this game is no different than any other meaningless non-conference game played in front of a sterile audience.