Meyers Leonard could decide Braggin’ Rights

Frank Haith, meet Meyers Leonard. Leonard is a college hoops oddity.

It’s not just that Illinois’ 7-1, 245-pound sophomore big man who has to beat NBA recruiters off with a bat is good at what he does — Leonard’s block rate (10.4 percent) is 35th nationally, only a bit better than his defensive rebounding rate (24.7 percent) that’s good for 48th nationally. And there’s that 64.1 percent eFG%. It’s that Leonard can do those things for most of a 40-minute game, not the norm among big men of his gargantuan figure.

The mobile center has called himself an “athletic freak” for good reason. Leonard has clocked two 35-minute games this season, including the Illini’s win over Cornell on Monday, and has averaged a shade under 28 minutes per game. He has been on the floor for 69.8 percent of the Illini’s minutes this season, which is second-highest for his team. He says he could play 37 or 38 minutes if he had to.

Leonard could be the wrench in Haith’s so-far perfect season when the 25th-ranked Illini take on ninth-ranked undefeated Missouri tonight at the annual Braggin’ Rights game held on neutral grounds in St. Louis.

See, the Tigers are fast and offensively efficient because of their masterful ability to control tempo, but small, which becomes a liability on the defensive end.

Haith’s four-guard starting lineup features agile scorer, passer and shooter Marcus Denmon who can be nicely summed up by his sixth-best nationally 143.8 offensive rating. No single player logging 22.3 percent or more of his team’s possessions can boast of so-high an offensive rating. Kim English, at 6-6 is the tallest of the three guards flanking Denmon, and 6-8 starting forward Ricardo Ratliffe and 6-9 backup Steve Moore are ill-sized and ill-assisted to take much flak in the post.

That’s why Missouri’s Pomeroy columns are so ill-matched. The Tigers feature the nation’s second most efficient offense at 1.19 points per possession brought on by merciless baseline and perimeter shooting, and a 43rd-best defense that allows 0.92 ppp. But even on the offensive end there are glaring inconsistencies. The Tigers rank first in the nation in eFG% and TO% and a distant 139th in OR%. Mizzou’s guard know that once that ball sets sail, it’s probably gone for good. That will be especially true tonight with the lllini giant waiting underneath.

And although he’s known best for his defensive prowess, it will be Leonard’s offensive abilities that will be on display. He’s no slouch on that end. Leonard has put together a solid 120.4 o-rating to go with his 46th ranked eFG%. The Tigers will be hard-pressed to stop, or even wear out Illinois’ deadly low-post weapon.

It won’t really even matter much that Illinois has no real perimeter threats and ranks 212th from three. Leonard should provide enough confusion and threatening inside presence to significantly bump up the Illini’s 1.03 ppp efficiency.

The Illini are looking to extend their 27-14 lead in the all-time series, but the Mizzou seniors are looking for their third straight win after clinching a 81-68 win in 2009 and a 75-64 victory last season.