Know Your Foe: Illinois Fighting Illini


Tonight the Missouri Tigers mens basketball team faces their toughest test of their non-conference schedule. The No. 8 Tigers take on the Illinois Fighting Illini, ranked 24th, in St. Louis in the annual Busch Braggin’ Rights game. Illinois has an overall 20-10 edge in the series, but Missouri has won the last two meetings.

With this being a rivalry game, Mizzou fans should know all about the Illini, but maybe not what the actual school is all about. As always, thats where I come in.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign was founded in 1867, after a grant from the Morrill Act of 1862 gave each state a portion of land to start a major public state university which would teach agriculture, mechanic arts, and military training. There was debate, however, between the University’s first president, John Milton Gregory, and state legislators over what the University should teach. Gregory wanted a liberal arts institution, while lawmakers desired a focus on “industrial education”. The debate continued until his resignation in 1880, and Gregory is widely credited for founding the University for how it is today.

After a fierce bidding war to determine where it would be located, Urbana in eastern Illinois was selected as the university’s home. Today the campus is split between Urbana and Champaign, sister cities approximately 140 miles south of Chicago. Champaign, the larger of the two cities, is home to 81,055, according to the 2010 census, while Urbana has a population of 41,250. However, most students live in Urbana, so the population fluctuates with the University’s schedule.

Beginning after World War II, the University of Illinois began a period of great expansion thanks to increased funds from the state and federal government. It doubled enrollment during this time, and also gained a greater academic reputation. Illinois has continued to expand, and today is home to 17 separate colleges to choose from. Its undergraduate engineering program is ranked sixth in the country, according to a U.S. News report. Today, enrollment sits at 42,605.

It also boasts one of the largest greek life programs in the country. Illinois has 36 sororities and 59 fraternities as a part of the greek community on campus. 6,850 students are members, accounting for 16 percent of the student body.

Illinois also has a long history of athletic success to go along with its strong academics. It currently has 21 men and women varsity sports which compete in the Big Ten Conference, to which Illinois has belonged since 1896. They lay claim to 25 national championships since 1900, though only two of which have come since 1958 (men’s tennis in 2003 and men’s gymnastics in 1989). They have enjoyed a fair amount of success in the Big Ten, however, winning 230 conference championships in all sports, good for second most in conference history.

Recently their men’s basketball team has enjoyed success, reaching the NCAA Tournament 12 of the last 14 seasons, including two No. 1 seeds during that time. Their most successful season came in 2005, when Bruce Weber, 2005’s national Coach of the Year, guided the Illini to a 37-2 overall record, including a 29-0 start before losing their last game of the regular season to Ohio State. Their 37 total wins tied an NCAA record for most in a season.

The Illini, led by guards Luther Head, Dee Brown, and Deron Williams, earned the number one overall seed in the NCAA Tournament and played their way to the national championship game. This included one of the most dramatic games in NCAA Tournament history, a comeback victory over third seeded Arizona, who led 75-60 with four minutes to play. Illinois finished the game on a 20-5 run, including a tying three pointer from Williams with 39 seconds left, and went on to win 90-89 in overtime. They ultimately lost in the championship to North Carolina, led by Sean May, by a score of 75-70.

This year’s version of the Illini, currently ranked No. 24, got off to a surprising 10-0 start following a disappointing season last year. With the graduation of four seniors, including Demetri McCamey and Mike Davis, this was supposed to be a rebuilding year for a young Illini team that only has one senior see the court regularly (Sam Maniscalco 10.9 PPG). However, the Illini won their first 10 games before losing to UNLV on Dec. 17. They are led in scoring by junior guard D.J. Richardson, who averages 14.4 PPG. The biggest threat, literally and figuratively, to Mizzou may be sophomore center Meyers Leonard. Leonard, who stands at 7’1”, averages 13.3 PPG and 7.8 RPG.

Illinois will be the second ranked team Missouri has faced this year, the first being then-No. 18 Cal, but this is undoubtedly their biggest test of the season. The size and athleticism of Leonard in the post will create matchup problems for the small Mizzou lineup. Expect to see lots of double teams from wing players to help big men Ricardo Ratliffe and Steve Moore contain Leonard. It will be the first time Mizzou deals with a big time threat from the post, an area of the Tigers’ game that has been questioned. In a neutral site rivalry game, anything can happen, especially when both teams are ranked. But the last time Mizzou faced a ranked team on a neutral floor, they won by 39. Mizzou will need to come out strong and continue their balanced attack from the outside to earn Braggin’ Rights for the third year in a row.