Illini Braggin' Rights, Tupper column

Illinois players celebrate their 62-59 win in the annual Braggin' Rights game against Missouri in December, 2015, at the Scottrade Center in St. Louis. While the game has lost its luster the last few years, interest could pick up again with both teams' programs re-energized with new coaches. 

STEPHEN HAAS, LEE NEWS SERVICE

One-time University of Illinois basketball commit Jeremiah Tilmon finally signed with Missouri on Monday. And while that will annoy some Illini fans, it at least assures one welcome change will be falling back into place:

The buzz will be returning to the annual Braggin’ Rights game.

One of college basketball’s best nonconference rivalries has been an institution in St. Louis since 1980 and for the most part, it’s been a scalding-hot pre-Christmas appetizer for fans of both teams.

The Scottrade Center has typically been filled and the unwritten rules call for Illini fans to bust out the orange and blue while the Mizzou fans show up in black and gold. With the arena split about 50-50, it’s been a raucous night that reminds everyone how terrific a border war rivalry can be.

A crowd of 20,079 turned out to see Rayvonte Rice hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to give the Illini a victory in 2014. There for the show was current Illini AD Josh Whitman (then AD at Washington University). He was on a first date with a woman named Hope Hunt. She’s now his wife and the mother of their daughter.

But the next year Braggin’ Rights attendance plunged to 14,456. And last season, with fans generally discouraged as each team plodded toward another rough year, only 12,409 showed up.

The sight of so many empty seats was alarming and Whitman, who was courtside again, was bothered to see the shine dulling on what should be a marquee event.

One could sense changes were coming and it was not a surprise when both Missouri and Illinois fired their head coaches. Gone are Kim Anderson of the Tigers and John Groce of the Illini.

Missouri is already bouncing back strong with the hiring of former East St. Louis prep star Cuonzo Martin as head coach. He has quickly engineered a roster makeover that will give him one of the nation’s top recruiting classes for his maiden voyage.

Martin quickly hired Michael Porter Sr. away from the University of Washington as an assistant coach and with him, Porter brought his son, Michael Porter Jr., who just happens to be the No. 1-ranked high school player in America.

He’s a 6-foot-10, 215-pounder with mad skills.

His younger brother, 6-10, 240-pound Jontay Porter, is a year behind in high school but apparently has enough academic progress to reclassify as a 2017 recruit, too, should he opt to do so.

Throw in Tilmon, another highly rated 6-10 athlete, and Missouri’s front line looks set.

Missouri also will add Blake Harris, an incoming freshman point guard from North Carolina, C.J. Roberts, another point guard out of Texas, and Kassius Robertson, a grad transfer who averaged 16.1 points last season at Canisius.

New Illinois coach Brad Underwood hasn’t been so dramatic in his roster transformation. His big news was the signing of Illinois’ Mr. Basketball, Edwardsville guard Mark Smith, who could make a significant impact once he arrives later this summer.

Underwood told Jon Rothstein of Fanrag Sports Network, “I think we should be an NCAA Tournament team next year. I like our pieces and I like our toughness and grit.

“I think Mark Smith … has a chance to be one of the best freshmen in the country. We should be right there in the middle of things in the Big Ten.”

With Braggin’ Rights attendance suffering, Whitman and Missouri AD Jim Sterk have kicked around some ideas to get the arena full and feisty again. Including the women’s teams as part of a doubleheader was one thought.

But based on recent events and the building excitement that naturally comes when there are high-profile coaching changes, look for the Scottrade Center to be sold out again this December.

Mark Tupper covers University of Illinois sports for Lee News Service. Contact him on Twitter: @MarkTupper

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Assistant Night Editor

Assistant Night Editor for The Pantagraph.

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