The no. 8 Missouri Tigers will face their toughest opponent of the year tonight when they tip-off against the no. 25 Illinois Fightin’ Illini at Scottrade Center in Saint Louis. Here is a quick breakdown of tonight’s match-up.
Mizzou: Marcus Denmon
While Mizzou truly relies on almost its entire roster to be successful, senior guard Marcus Denmon is without a doubt the team’s most valuable player. He averages nearly 20 points per game and has become one of the team’s most reliable weapons on offense. Denmon’s performance this season has been bolstered by fellow senior Kim English, who has bounced back nicely from a disappointing junior season.
Illinois: DJ Richardson
DJ Richardson has been the catalyst for this Illinois offense. He leads the team in scoring at 14.4 points per game and has been solid from beyond the arc over his past three games. With U of I’s lack of production off the bench, Richardson has been forced to play nearly the entire 40 minutes of every game this season, but has no problem continuing to produce at a high level.
PLAYER TO WATCH:
Mizzou: Ricardo Ratliffe
The Tigers will rely heavily on Ricardo Ratliffe tonight to maintain a presence on the block against Illinois. He is one of the Big 12’s best shooters from the floor (.77 FG%), but will face his biggest challenge of the year tonight in Myers Leonard. It will be interesting to see how Ratliffe responds to this adversity and if he is able to find a way to remain effective against Illinois’ bigs.
Illinois: Myers Leonard
At 7’1, Myers Leonard could have a big game tonight against Missouri. His size could allow him to single-handedly dominate the boards. Even if Illinois is having an off-night shooting the ball, Leonard could keep them in the game with his size and ability to consistently score points at a high rate (13.3 PPG).
KEYS TO VICTORY:
1. Tighten up the perimeter defense: The biggest flaw in Missouri’s defense is their tendency to leave players wide open around the arc. I think this problem stems from the Mizzou defense trying to compensate for their lack of size by collapsing the defense towards the basket. This problem was especially noticeable against Villanova (a team that had a significant height advantage over Missouri), when the Wildcats were able to hang in there, solely because of their hot 3-point shooters.
Tonight, the Tigers will be faced with two of the better big men they have faced all year in Sam Maniscalco and Meyers Leonard. Despite this, they must stay disciplined and not allow a player like DJ Richardson to get open looks from 3-point land, because he has the ability to cripple Mizzou’s chances if he finds his stroke early on.
2. Stick to the plan on offense: I am a huge fan of Frank Haith’s offense. He finally has these guys running plays inside the half-court offense and consistently finding open looks. Bottom line: the Missouri Tigers rarely take a bad shot on offense.
Illinois believes they can win if they dictate the tempo and force Mizzou into a half-court offense. Unlike his predecessor Mike Anderson, however, Frank Haith appears to have a list of set plays for his players to run when forced into a half-court set. The Tigers must stick to his game plan if and when the Illini start to dictate the pace of the game.
Another key to Mizzou’s offense has been a willingness to drive towards the basket. Players like Denmon, English, and Michael Dixon must remain aggressive in attacking the basket and not settle for bad-angled jump shots. This is an area where Missouri could use their smaller players to their advantage in trying to draw fouls against Leonard and Maniscalco.
3. Force Bruce Weber to turn to his bench early: The Illini bench was shut out against Cornell and mustered just three points against Cornell. Missouri should have no problem forcing U of I to use its subs, but the sooner they can force Weber’s hand, the better.
1. Dictate the pace of the game: You are going to hear this at least a dozen times over the course of the game, but Illinois must dictate the pace of the game from the start. They are not built to keep up with Mizzou’s frenetic pace, especially with their serious lack of depth.
2. Attack Missouri’s bigs: Mizzou is not a big team. They will rely heavily on Ricardo Ratliffe and Steve Moore to pull down rebounds and establish a presence down low. However, those two players are prone to getting into foul trouble rather quickly, meaning that the Illini could completely dominate the boards if they are able to get those two players into foul trouble early. If Mizzou’s offense is firing on all-cylinders from the opening tip, that may be the only way U of I keeps this game from becoming a blow-out by halftime.
3. Remain patient on offense: As I mentioned earlier, Missouri’s defense is prone to giving up a lot of open looks from 3-point land. Teams have found a lot of success this year by getting the ball inside to draw the Tiger defenders, before kicking it out for an easy 3-point attempt. This may sound elementary, but it nearly proved to be Mizzou’s undoing against Villanova.
Mizzou should have no problem dominating this game. For what the Tigers’ lack in size, they make up for in depth and shooting. I predict a 10-point victory for the ‘gers.