Each time the Illini have faced a true challenge this season away from Champaign, they've failed to walk away with a win. It's a trend they're looking to bring to a halt this weekend, when they face what could be their toughest test yet.
The annual Braggin' Rights game against Missouri is always a tall task for both teams, and though this year's group of Tigers ranks No. 23 in the country — lower than the Oregon Ducks did last weekend, when the Illini fell in Portland — it's the emotion of the game that makes this rivalry game particularly challenging.
"Our guys are looking forward to that challenge on Saturday. It's one of those games that's easy to get up for," Illinois head coach John Groce said during a Thursday press conference. "It's an exciting environment. Our guys are always talking about it, even during the offseason, how much they enjoy being a part of one of the game's best rivalries. So we look forward to traveling (Friday), getting over there and lacing them up."
The meeting between orange and blue and black and gold has been happening in St. Louis since 1980, with the Illini holding a 20-12 series edge. But Missouri has won the last four games, including Groce's first a season ago.
"There was more emotion to the game than what I thought," Groce said. "I thought we got caught up in that, which can be a good thing if you balance it appropriately. Then there were some times where I thought we took some wild shots and did some things because you get caught up in the emotion of the game. So you've got to be able to trust your system, be poised, don't let anyone or anything steal your mind. I say that to the players all the time. But at the same time, you love that competitiveness that's a part of the game. You love that edge to it, you love that emotion, and we've got to channel that in a positive way."
After the last three matchups featured battles between two ranked teams, this season's contest will tip-off with many feeling the Tigers have a distinct edge. Mizzou, after all, hasn't lost yet this season, carrying a 10-0 record and the country's No. 23 ranking into this edition of the Braggin' Rights game.
The Illini, meanwhile, have disappointed slightly in a pair of opportunities to make statements in the non-conference portion of their schedule. First, in the Big Ten/ACC Challenge, they blew a double-digit second-half lead in Atlanta to fall to Georgia Tech. Then came last weekend's collapse, a not-as-large lead but a blown one nonetheless in the second half to Oregon.
Groce brushed off the idea that the Illini can't finish, pointing to other games in which they came from behind in the second half to win.
"The reality of it is, we've been in five games with about eight minutes to go in either we've been ahead, the score's been tied or we've been slightly behind," Groce said. "We've been behind (with fewer than four minutes remaining) against IPFW and UNLV. No one's talking about that. They all want to talk about the other two. That's five of them. We've won three of them. We're OK. Stay poised, keep learning, execute details of the offense a little bit better.
"But I'm more concerned about the defense. Our defense has not been good enough late in the game. We've not got enough stops. I certainly don't want to take away from (Oregon's) Jonathan Lloyd making two big-time plays late in the game. I'll give it to him. ... I realize that that happens and you're not going to pitch a shutout for nine minutes. I get that. But I just don't like the points per possession we're giving up in the last eight-to-nine minutes relative to the first 30-to-32 minutes. To me, we've got to get more stops and be able to get stops and rebounds, and the rest will take care of itself."
The truth is, though, if the Illini have another second-half lead against the Tigers on Saturday night, they'd be best to hold onto it if they don't want to be labeled as a team that can't finish. But, at the same time, this game provides the Illini another crack at that statement-win, something they couldn't grab against Georgia Tech or Oregon.