ST. LOUIS — For virtually every Illinois opponent, the focus is finding a way to slow down Kofi Cockburn. The 7-foot, 285-pound colossus showed why against Missouri. Early in the second half, he caught an errant pass at the top of the key. Without breaking stride, he took two steps and threw down a vicious one-handed slam, plus drew a foul.
The Tigers, too, made slowing down Cockburn a priority, keeping extra defenders around him to help if he got the ball around the basket. While the big man put up an impressive 25 points and 14 rebounds, he didn’t play the biggest role in Illinois pulling away from Missouri late in the first half and then keeping the Tigers at arm’s length.
The Illini shooters took advantage of the Missouri defenders helping on the interior and knocked down 12 of 25 three-pointers. The barrage allowed the Illini to cruise to an 88-63 victory, reclaiming Braggin’ Rights for the first time since 2017.
“Not defending at the level we need to on three-point shots, really pressing up on those threes,” Missouri coach Cuonzo Martin said of his team’s defense. “Force those guys to make plays off the dribble, at the rim.”
Illinois started the game making each of its first four attempts from behind the arc. That helped the Illini jump out to a 17-point lead in less than 11 minutes. Illinois then hit just one of its next seven triples, allowing Missouri to cut the lead to six points. But just before halftime, fifth-year senior guard Trent Frazier caught fire. Frazier hit a pair of threes, including one from just inside the Enterprise Center logo, then drained a couple more long jumpers to start the second half. A 12-0 Illinois run out of the break “changed the game,” in Martin’s words.
The loss dropped Missouri to 6-6 on the season as the team enters conference play. Here are five things we learned from the loss.
1. Illinois won the game from behind the three-point line. The Illini’s 48 percent three-point shooting clip really doesn’t do the performance justice, as the team missed three triples late in the game when it had reserves on the floor and also knocked down three separate 20-foot two-pointers. Three Illini players, Frazier, Jacob Grandison and Alfonso Plummer, knocked down three triples apiece.
Martin attributed the open looks to a combination of Cockburn’s presence inside and a lack of execution from his defense. He noted that defenses “have to identify” Cockburn and be prepared to send help when he catches the ball in the post. But Missouri also entered Wednesday’s game knowing Illinois could knock down shots from the perimeter. Prior to the matchup, the Illini ranked 15th nationally in three-point shooting at 39.0 percent. Martin said his defense wasn’t aggressive enough in rotating to the perimeter and forcing Illinois players to put the ball on the deck.
“We gave up a lot of open looks,” said junior forward Kobe Brown. “We gotta fix that. We’ve got to have more urgency, defensive urgency, to get to shooters and get them out of their spots.”
Perhaps the most concerning thing for Missouri is that three-point defense didn’t suddenly become an issue in this game due to the presence of Cockburn. Each of the Tigers’ past three opponents have shot 40 percent or better from behind the arc. That’s been the case in eight of 12 matchups on the season.
Martin said that has simply resulted from a lack of tenacity on the defensive end. For a team that struggles to knock down shots of its own, giving up so many threes has proven difficult to overcome.
“Just pride on defense,” Martin said. “Guarding your man, guarding, getting up on the ball, force guys to make plays off the dribble. That means really being aggressive defensively.”
2. Martin said Mizzou had open looks of its own on the offensive end, but the Tigers couldn’t convert enough of them to keep pace.
Missouri continued its poor shooting from behind the arc. The Tigers made just six of 23 three-point attempts. That’s not a new phenomenon; in fact, the 26.1-percent shooting performance from deep actually improved the team’s three-point percentage on the season.
Missouri appeared to find a spark when it went away from three-pointers in the second half of its win over Utah on Saturday, attempting just five triples in the second half. That trend didn’t continue against Illinois, however, with the Tigers hoisting 15 three-pointers after the break. But Martin wasn’t so much upset with the shot selection as the execution. He said “when those shots are open, they have to go.”
“If you’re getting your open looks, they’ll fall,” said Martin. “If you’re a three-point shooter and you’re working on it in practice, eventually they’ll fall. I think it’s just that simple until they fall. Because the issue, more than anything, would be if you’re not getting any looks, if all your shots from three are under duress. But you’re getting open shots from three, just continue working at it, eventually they’ll fall.”
Martin expressed more displeasure with his team’s shooting around the rim. He said the Tigers couldn’t convert several easy scoring opportunities. Missouri finished the game five-for-nine on layup attempts.
Martin specifically pointed out a missed layup by Amari Davis late in the first half. The Tigers had just put together an 11-0 run to cut their deficit to six points. Instead of pulling within four, Davis couldn’t finish. Frazier then knocked down threes on each of Illinois’ next two possessions to put the Illini back in control.
“You have to be able to make open shots,” Martin said. “I thought we had open shots. I thought we also had shots at the rim. You gotta be able to capitalize there. When you’re playing against a good team, you’ve got to make those shots.”
3. The Tigers might have asked Kobe Brown to do too much.
Brown has been Missouri’s best player all season, which was never more evident than Saturday, when Brown scored 23 points in the second half and willed the Tigers to a win over Utah. Against Illinois, Brown did an admirable job battling Cockburn on the defensive end, even though he’s listed as five inches shorter and 35 pounds lighter.
“Kobe Brown did a great job down low, getting physical with him,” Martin said.
But whether it was because he spent so much energy on the defensive end or because Illinois made it a point to slow him down, Brown couldn’t carry the load on the offensive side of the court. Brown scored 13 points, but on 5-16 shooting. He shot 1-7 from three-point range. Only three of Brown’s points came during the second half, though he only played 10 minutes after the break. Brown appeared to hold his left arm as he left the floor, but he said after the game he’s “good.”
4. Martin said Missouri’s identity needs to be defense, rebounding and effort. We’ve already established that the Tigers struggled on the defensive end. They lost the rebounding battle, too.
Illinois out-rebounded the Tigers 39-27. That’s not a good recipe for Missouri. The Tigers are 6-0 when coming out ahead in the rebound margin this season but now 0-6 when being out-rebounded.
Illinois entered Wednesday third nationally in rebound margin and second in offensive rebounding rate, but coach Brad Underwood said made a concerted effort to “hammer home” the importance of rebounding ahead of the matchup. His team responded. The Illini were helped by the fact that Missouri missed 40 shots while they only missed 25, creating plentiful opportunities on the defensive glass.
5. It’s been a tough year for the Tigers in rivalry games. Eleven days ago, Missouri traveled to Allen Fieldhouse to face Kansas for the first time since 2012. The Jayhawks led wire to wire and won by 37. The matchup against Missouri’s eastern rival didn’t unfold much better. Illinois led by more than 20 points for the final 18:37 and at one point led by as many as 37.
Asked what his message would be to fans discouraged by the team’s performance in its two marquee non-conference games, Martin said “stay the course.”
“Stay the course,” he said. “We’ll continue to get better, we’ll continue to grow. I like where we are as a team. I like where we’re going.”
Star of the Game: Illinois really had the first, second, third and probably fourth-best players on the floor. But Missouri freshman Trevon Brazile deserves a bit of love for his defensive effort. The true freshman who missed the Tigers’ first eight games of the season, logged six blocks. The only Missouri freshman to log more blocks in a game was Arthur Johnson, the school’s all-time blocks leader. Brazile also chipped in 11 points and five rebounds.
Room for Improvement: Missouri only logged six assists compared to 12 turnovers. It marked the second game in a row that the Tigers have only recorded six assists. That wasn’t an issue against Utah, as Brown was able to score virtually at will around the basket. But against an opponent better suited to protect the rim, the Tigers struggled to run their offense, settling for a lot of quick and contested jumpers.
What it means: Once again, Missouri showed that it is simply out-classed against quality competition. The Tigers have now played three teams ranked in the top 40 nationally by KenPom. They have lost each game by at least 23 points. The issues are particularly glaring on the defensive end. Those three opponents — Illinois, Kansas and Florida State — have all topped 80 points and have averaged 90.3.
Next up: Missouri will get a week off for Christmas before opening conference play at Kentucky on Dec. 29. The Wildcats have started the season 9-2, including a 29-point win over North Carolina on Saturday. Tipoff is set for 6 p.m.
Quotable: “You want to see three-point shots go. I think it’s very important, because it’s probably looking like a different game if some of those shots go for you. But if they don’t, against good teams, you put so much pressure on your defense to be able to make plays.” — Cuonzo Martin