Historic Braggin\' Right Series a New Experience for Newcomers

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COLUMBIA -- Keion Bell grew up in sunny Southern California, 1,800 miles away from St. Louis and the Mississippi River divider between Missouri and Illinois.

He signed with Pepperdine of the West Coast Conference out of high school, where in three seasons he played exactly one road game in the central time zone. In his universe, Missouri and Illinois may have well been the same school.

Little did he know the two programs have been playing each other each winter for more than three decades. He grew up knowing nothing of MU's classic triple-overtime victory in 1993. Nothing of the 1988 game when the Tigers blew an 18-point lead and lost by three points- nothing about Lou Henson, Norm Stewart, Quin Snyder or, even better, the popcorn a fan dumped on Snyder in 2005.

Until Monday, Bell had no clue Missouri had won three straight Braggin' Rights games after snapping a nine-game losing skid in 2009.

"I know nothing about the streak," Bell said. "That was my first time hearing it when you just brought it up."

It's certainly understandable. Hey, Bell's a California kid. So is Jabari Brown, an Oakland native and Oregon transfer who joined MU's active roster at the start of the second semester and said he's heard it's a "real intense game." In fact, of the 13 players on Missouri's roster, only two have ever competed in a Braggin' Rights game: Senior Laurence Bowers and junior Phil Pressey.

Auburn transfer Earnest Ross, one of the several transfers who sat out per NCAA rules last year, said he watched last year's game on television.

"It looked like a crazy, exciting game," Ross said. "Just coming here last year, and seeing that, I'm looking forward to actually playing in the game this year."

Bowers, who took a medical redshirt after tearing his ACL last October, did not play in the 2011 Braggin' Rights game, but he sealed the 2010 win in the final minute by converting a layup while Illinois' Mike Tisdale pushed him in the back for an intentional foul.

He arrived at Missouri right in the middle of that nine-game losing streak. As a freshman, the Fighting Illini whooped his Tigers by 16 points, dropping them from the top-25 and sending the black-and-gold faithful flocking to the exits early yet again.

Since that night in 2008, though, Bowers has never again lost to Illinois.

"I definitely want to go out with another win," Bowers said. "I figure if Illinois can win nine years in a row, why can't Mizzou?"

It's up to him and Pressey to prepare the 11 newcomers for Saturday's unique atmosphere. Even Frank Haith, who coached his first Braggin' Rights game a year ago, has less experience in this game than those two players.

"I've heard all the guys last year and the previous years talk about how big the game is and the intensity of the game," Bell said. "It'll be no better feeling than to actually experience it this year."

Missouri and Illinois are both ranked in the top-15 for the first time since 2002, so the stakes are high for the newcomers' first Braggin' Rights game.

"[Ross] obviously played in the SEC, and Keion played at UCLA, played at Gonzaga, had 37 at Gonzaga, so they've been in tough arenas," Haith said. "But being in a place where there's 50/50 and every basket there's cheering..."

"I don't know if anybody's been in that."

They'll be in it on Saturday. For 11 players, it'll be the first time.

For Bowers, it'll be the last.

"I don't want to lose this game," Bowers said. "It's a big-time game."

Maybe that'll catch Keion Bell's attention.