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Braggin’ Rights on line in Illinois’ showdown against Missouri

Coach John Groce won’t apologize for Illinois’ reliance three-point shooting en route its 12-0 start. | Chris Lee~AP

Coach John Groce won’t apologize for Illinois’ reliance on three-point shooting en route to its 12-0 start. | Chris Lee~AP

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Updated: January 23, 2013 6:08AM



What a nice Christmas present for Illini Nation.

A wretched football season was followed by low expectations for basketball. But here we are, gearing up for eggnog and presents, and No. 10 Illinois is off to a 12-0 start. That makes the Braggin’ Rights game Saturday against No. 12 Missouri in St. Louis (5 p.m., ESPN2, 560-AM) a real holiday treat.

Skeptics will say the Illini, who lead the nation with 10 three-point baskets per game, rely too much on outside shooting. They’ll question what’s going to happen when they face a potent front line, such as that of Missouri, which ranks fourth in the country with a plus-13.2 rebounding margin. Illinois’ plus-3.8 puts it 102nd (and 10th in the Big Ten).

The Tigers’ frontcourt features 6-8 Laurence Bowers (16.3 points, 6.4 rebounds) and 6-9 UConn transfer Alex Oriakhi (24 points, 21 rebounds in Missouri’s last two games).

Then again, the doubters questioned the Illini before they won at Gonzaga, which also has a potent front line.

Another step forward against the Tigers before a frenzied crowd of 22,000 at the sold-out Scottrade Center, and more doubters will jump on the Illinois bandwagon.

That’s not a big issue to the Illini, though.

‘‘People like good stories,’’ Illinois coach John Groce said. ‘‘They like to watch giants crash and David rise. We’re just worried about getting better. I don’t get caught up in all that stuff. As soon as you start worrying about things you can’t control, you drive yourself crazy.’’

What the Illini are thinking about is ending their three-game losing streak against Missouri. No one on this Illinois team has beaten the Tigers.

‘‘A lot of the guys owe them one,’’ said Illini guard D.J. Richardson, who is eager to hoist the Braggin’ Rights trophy.

Missouri coach Frank Haith has reloaded with five experienced transfers, but only two Tigers have played in this game — and not together. Bowers was injured last season, and point guard Phil Pressey was hurt two years ago.

‘‘That’s something we can try to use to our advantage,’’ Illinois guard Brandon Paul said. ‘‘But they’re not going to just hand us the trophy. We’re going to have to come in and play hard.’’

And play well, Groce said.

‘‘We’ve had some great wins so far,’’ Groce said. ‘‘They have as well. When you look at those games, you see players making plays. It will come down to that, as simple as it sounds.’’

Saying it’s good coaching philosophy to put players in position to do what they do best, Groce made no apologies for the Illini’s reliance on three-point shooting.

‘‘[We’d like] to drive more to complement our perimeter shooting,’’ he said. ‘‘That’s important moving forward. But we’re a good shooting team. We’d be foolish not to take advantage of that.’’



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